This is an appalling case that angered Irish Prime Minister Michael Martin. Martin issued a public statement saying that “that was a dark, difficult and shameful chapter in Irish modern history.” He claimed that the case reflected the profound problems of Irish society, and that the “extremely cruel culture” treated women with incredible cruelty and apologized to the victims on behalf of the country.
What angered Martin was a 3,000-page report from the Irish Maternal and Child Home Investigative Committee. This report, which took 6 years to complete, recorded a large number of infant deaths in 18 maternal and child homes operated by the church over 70 years, as well as the abuse of unmarried pregnant women during that period.
The dark history of Maternal and Child Home
For a long time, Ireland was strictly controlled by the Catholic Church, and it was not until 2018 that the abortion ban was abolished by a referendum. Previously, not only was abortion illegal, but before 1980, even contraception was also illegal. At that time, if a young woman became pregnant without marriage, she was considered a tainted person. The male partner did not want to marry, and the parents did not want to take it in. Abortion was a felony. Most of them have no jobs and can only go to the mother and child home.
The Mother and Child Home is a shelter established by the Irish Local Council. It is run by the church and managed by nuns trained in obstetrics and gynecology. It is not a free charity. For every pair of mother and child (daughter), the council will pay a fee of 1 pound per week (in 1949, the average weekly income of Irish women was nearly 3 pounds, and 1 pound can buy more than 30 loaves of bread, 100 Pound potatoes). After giving birth, women with well-off families pay fees to the mother-infant home. Women from poor families must provide at least one year of unpaid labor before leaving the mother-infant home to compensate for the “services they receive.”
Even if they charge for both ends, the Maternal and Child Home still does not take good care of these women. Witnesses and witnesses interviewed said that it was like a mixture of hospitals, schools and prisons, with a terrifying atmosphere, full of sadness and despair. The youngest women abandoned by their parents and lovers are only 12 years old. They were tortured and insulted in the mother and child home. They had to kneel to wipe the floor, wax the floor, and iron the bed sheets and pillowcases with a heavy iron in the laundry room until two or three weeks before the birth of the child. Being insulted is even more commonplace. The nuns call them sinners, saying that the children they give birth are descendants of the devil. Some women were sent directly to the laundry room to work after giving birth because they gave birth out of wedlock more than once. An old woman said that she had two children out of wedlock when she was young, and she had been deaf in one ear after she lived in a mother-infant home for 5 years. There are also many women who died in mother and infant homes due to childbirth.
In maternal and infant homes, women must be separated from their babies after giving birth. There was a mother who planned to take the child to live with her sister after giving birth in the 1960s, but the nun said that the child must be sent elsewhere. The so-called other places are the families that adopt children. After the mother leaves, the child is raised by a nun until it can be adopted, or sent to a foster school for orphans. It is estimated that more than 4,000 children may have been sold to the United States and illegally adopted by Catholic families. A large number of photos, documents and letters confirm that the adoptive family has to pay the mother and child home. After some children were adopted or died, the Maternal and Child Home did not notify the mother, and even continued to write to the mother asking for the fee.
Local media disclosed that the mother of a child kept sending money to the Maternal and Infant Home, requesting to take good care of her son. The nuns didn’t tell her that the child had been adopted long ago. Some children died before being adopted. A report in 1947 stated that there was a mother-infant home with 271 children and 61 mothers in poor conditions, and 12 of the 31 babies were stunted. From 1922 to 1998, about 9,000 children died in 18 mother-infant homes. The mortality rate was as high as 15%, which was twice the infant mortality rate in the general population. In 1943, 34% of children died in a maternal and child home in Galway; in 1944, a maternal and child home in Cork City had a child mortality rate of 82%, and most of the children who died were under their first birthday. There are many causes of child death, such as malnutrition, measles, tuberculosis and pneumonia. The children were buried hastily after their deaths, and the bodies of some children were even thrown away at will.
In 1975, when two 12-year-old boys in Galway were playing on the site of a mother and child home in Tuam, they found a hole under a concrete slab filled with children’s bones. The locals believed that they were the remains of the victims of the Great Famine in Ireland in the 19th century, and they have not counted the number. After a pastor went there to pray, the place was sealed again.
If it weren’t for Catherine Colles, these secrets would continue to be sealed underground.
The housewife unearthed a shocking secret
Coles was born in 1954 and is an ordinary housewife who has lived in Tuam, a small town in western Ireland all her life. After his four children grew up and left home, Colles, who was nearly 60 years old, became interested in history and wrote an article for a local history magazine. The editors liked her work very much and asked her for a draft. After consideration, Koles selected Bonsex Maternal and Child Home as the subject of investigation. This is where the baby bones were found in 1975.
There are reasons for choosing this maternal and child home as the research object. Koles’ mother is an illegitimate daughter, raised by a foster family, and the father’s name is not on the birth certificate. Colles wanted to learn about the past of those foster children. In her childhood memories, there were also shadows of those children. When she was in elementary school, there were classmates from the mother-infant home in the school, and others bullied those children, and she followed the bullying ignorantly. Once, a classmate put a stone on a candy wrapper and gave it to a girl who came out of a mother-infant home to play with the child. Colles also learned something. Many years have passed, and this prank has been torturing her, leaving her with lingering guilt in her heart.
At that time, there was very little information about the Bonsex Maternal and Child Home. Koles first asked the local residents, and they showed her a mass grave that the locals believed was “buried the victims of the Great Famine.” Koles consulted the topographic survey map of this area and found that in 1890, the “mass grave” was a septic tank.
In 2013, Colles’s administrative department in Galway retrieved the death records of 798 children. They died between 1925 and 1961, most of which were infants. When Colles tried to compare these names with the names of the dead in the cemetery, only two of them matched the names. So, where did the corpses of other children go? Koles guessed that the only possible burial site for these corpses was the septic tank where the bones were found in 1975, but there is no official burial record. She asked in the article: Was the dead child buried in a septic tank?
Her conclusion was supported by some local residents. They recalled that they had seen nuns and workers bury their bodies there very late. In 2014, a female journalist named O’Reilly saw Colles’s article and wrote a report based on it that “there is a mass grave of 800 babies in the septic tank”. The news quickly aroused a strong response.
During this time, similar news broke out elsewhere in Ireland. In 2010, more than 200 baby corpses from another mother and child home were found in an unknown tomb in Dublin. All sectors of society put pressure on the government, believing that the high child mortality rate in maternal and child homes is difficult to be reasonably explained, “indicating that there are serious problems within these institutions.” Some survivors also began to break the silence and tell their own stories.
Under pressure from public opinion, the Irish government announced an investigation into this in 2014. The investigative committee is composed of senior judge Murphy, child protection and adoption legal expert Dr. Duncan, and historian Professor Daley.
The church finally apologized for this
The investigation committee found human remains during a test excavation of the Bonsex site. The small remains are 35-week-old fetuses, and the older ones are two or three-year-old children, all of whom died during the operation of the Maternal and Child Home. Although there is no clear conclusion, experts speculate that the burial site appears to be a cesspool. The high mortality rate is the focus of the investigation. The committee found that in a large number of homes for mothers and babies, the infant mortality rate is far above normal, even as high as five times.
The cold numbers shocked Irish society. In October 2018, the Minister of Children’s Affairs of Ireland announced that it would use systematic technology to conduct forensic excavation and recovery of the remains of the mother and child home, and re-bury them. In the same year, the book “My name is Bridget” was published based on the true stories of survivors in the mother-infant home, allowing people to learn more about the stories that have been in the dust for a long time. In the process of uncovering the truth, the survivors of the mother-infant home united and held various memorial ceremonies, demanding compensation from the government and making remedial measures, such as apologizing to the survivors, correcting mistakes, and Expansion of the scope of investigation, etc.
After 6 years of work, the final report of the investigation committee is available. It described “the shocking level of infant mortality in maternal and child homes” and pointed out that “before 1960, maternal and child homes did not save the lives of children born out of wedlock, but on the contrary significantly reduced their survival prospects.” From 1922 to 1998, 56,000 pregnant women were sent to maternal and child homes to give birth, and 1/7 of the children born in 18 maternal and child homes died there.
The report did not point the finger at the church only, but condemned the social environment that caused the tragedy. This society “has rigid rules and customs, barbaric intolerance, severe criticism, and cruelty contrary to the Christian spirit” on issues related to sex. The main responsibility for the cruel treatment of these women lies with their immediate family and the father of the child. The prevailing social customs at that time also contributed to this cruel practice, which was supported by the state and the church. Children’s Minister Ogolman said: “The report clearly shows that Ireland has had a suffocating, oppressive and cruel misogyny culture for decades. The widespread stigmatization of unmarried mothers and children has caused them to lose their custody rights and even be deprived of custody. Took away the future.”
The religious groups in the whirlpool also finally expressed their views. The Archbishop of the Irish Catholic Church, Martin, said that the church must recognize its role in this history. He apologized for the long-term harm and pain caused to the victim. The Catholic Bishop of Tuam, Nerri, said this was “a heavy blow”, and the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference apologized for this. Sister Bonsex, the religious group responsible for the operation of the Maternal and Child Home, also issued an apology: “We admit what happened before we can seek healing. We hope and pray that all affected people will be cured. We hope that the church and the country will be cured. Can learn from this history.”