The New York Times ran a special report last Sunday titled The Lost Children of Tuam by Dan Barry. At once shocking and moving, this excellent piece focuses on one of the mother and baby homes in mid-20th century Ireland. Three conspirators—the Irish government, the Catholic Church, and Irish families—created the mother and baby homes.
A Nation’s Secrets
St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam (pronounced Chewm), Galway operated from the mid-1920’s to the early 1960’s in the charge of the Bon Secours nuns. The building opened in 1846 as a workhouse during the Great Hunger. It became a repository for women disgraced in the eyes of society by pregnancy out of wedlock and their children. It ended as a disgrace, an insult to the humanity abandoned by the Irish government, the Irish Catholic Church and the Irish families who abandoned their daughters and grandchildren to such a place.
“To bury our humanity itself”
In an odd and vicious twist on a view of sin, the home forced the mothers to leave without their children after one year. The children were baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church. If they survived infancy, they survived on a poor diet, with no affection and little education. Many did not survive. The discovery of the system of Victorian empty septic chambers running under the home in 2015 provided the evidence. The chambers contained hundreds if not thousands of tiny human remains, wrapped and stacked upon one another. The role of the nuns and other involved adults is under investigation now.
The Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, addressed the Irish legislature, saying, “We dug deep and we dug deeper still. To bury our compassion, to bury our mercy, to bury our humanity itself.”
Dan Barry’s The Lost Children of Tuam (nytimes.com/tuam) is a tough read, but it is a very worthwhile one, for all of the questions it asks, and the ones it answers. Neither the people interviewed nor the author have the answer to why these women and children were treated so badly by their families, their government, and their church. All genocides in all countries beg the same question; essential to ask, difficult to answer.
The horrors at St. Mary’s and in the other mother and baby homes were well known by many in the towns, cities and farms of Ireland, but secret to others. In shame, the victims who survived tended to keep their secrets. Secrets are powerful and often destructive, but all families have them.
After reading about St. Mary’s, I thought about my own Irish family, and what I know about them, which I think is a lot—but do I? I know of only one rather benign secret, but I know of no such mother and baby home secrets in my family.
I was told many stories about my maternal great-grandmother, Mary Jane Wright. A mother of five and a young widow, she had nobody to turn to, her father having turned his back on her due to her choice of husband (while the father did buy a house for her, he never helped her again, and indeed, left nothing in his will to her). Mary Jane Wright was unusually capable, and not a young girl on her own, one ostracized by society. She also was a homeowner—a powerful position for a woman of her time.
After the loss of her husband, she took in used clothing and after cleaning and mending it, sold it. So successful was she that she bought houses and became something of a minor real estate mogul. She used her success to support her two sons in their business enterprises, and her two daughters, who neither married nor worked.
Aside from the above, I know nothing about Mary’s extended family and their descendants, the ones who stayed in Ireland. Might they have fallen on hard times, hard enough to end up in a mother and baby home?
The pot of gold
There exists a susceptibility—especially in Irish Americans— to apply the intelligence, and kindness of many Irish to all. The same application of traits, good or bad, exists for all groups, including all Americans. In the case of the Irish, it’s the rainbow effect. I fall under its thrall myself, even though I have supported the Irish Donkey Sanctuary for years and know that thousands of abused donkeys are rescued each year. Thousands of cases of abuse of the innocent. Once rescued though, the donkeys receive good care forever by their kind and able providers.
It’s a pity—a sin—that the mothers and babies found no such sanctuary at the mother and baby homes.