By Simon Basketter
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2738

Report on deaths of 9,000 Irish children is a cover-up

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Issue 2738
A mass grave at an institution for unmarried mothers and their babies in Tuam, western Ireland
The site of a mass grave at an institution for ‘unmarried mothers’ and their babies in Tuam, western Ireland (Pic: Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

An Irish investigation reported last week on how over 9,000 children died at 18 institutions for “unmarried mothers” and their babies between 1922 and 1998.

Most of the children died from starvation and malnourishment.

Survivors’ harrowing experiences were recounted and then ignored in the report.

The inquiry was sparked after the existence of a mass grave was revealed at the site of a former home—run by nuns—in Tuam in the west of Ireland. Some 796 children had died at the home and were interred in a former sewage tank.

There were around 56,000 “unmarried mothers” and 57,000 children in the mother and baby homes investigated.

The Irish constitution in 1937 enshrined the special role of the Catholic Church in the Irish state.

The Church was rewarded for playing the role of the ideological cop in Irish society by an accumulation of institutional power. It got control of the hospitals and schools.

Ireland built up a brutal architecture of containment institutions. For decades women who were considered morally deviant formed a disappeared and abused population.

Imprisoned in “Magdalene laundries” to carry out unpaid labour for the crime of pregnancy out of wedlock, they then gave birth in mother and baby homes.

If the child survived it could be put up for adoption regardless of the mother’s wishes.

Thousands of babies were sold and then exported to the US and Australia. The darker skinned babies were always rejected for adoption.

If not adopted, the child would go to an industrial school—bizarrely and offensively often referred to as orphanages. Previous inquiries have shown these to be places of brutal physical and sexual abuse by the religious orders.

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Children in industrial schools were used as slave labour in farms, laundries and even a rosary bead factory.

This cosy cartel between Church and state provided not just an ideological role. It saved the state from providing even limited social welfare and the church got influence along with large amounts of hard cash.

The state paid the Church to run the system of abuse.

One percent of the southern Irish population were in institutions in the 1950s.

Some women were incarcerated from birth to death. A quarter of the women trapped in the laundries came via another institution. Teenage girls might pass back into the mother and baby homes, ensuring a cycle of generational institutional abuse.

Girls as young as 12 and women as old as 89 were in the homes.

However, the report does not lay the blame at the door of the Church or the State. It points the finger at families and fathers it said who turned their backs on the unmarried, pregnant women.

It claimed, “Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families.”

Outside of the grubby cover-up is an attempt to prevent the survivors from getting compensation.


The Irish socialist group, People Before Profit, rightly described the report and the government response as a “sham, an insult and a whitewash of the gross crimes that were committed against thousands of women and infants”.

But the whitewash is undermined by the testimony given to the commission. In Bessborough, in Cork, 75 percent of the children born or admitted in 1943 died.

A total of 9,768 women and 8,938 children passed though the hands of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

One young mother described how she was stripped of her name, belongings and savings when she became an inmate.

She said, “It would have been impossible to leave, all of our things had been confiscated, we had no clothes and no money.

“From time to time we were allowed outside, but were always escorted by nuns. They marched us around like soldiers.” The burial sites of 923 children who died there remain unknown.

Several women imprisoned in Castlepollard in Westmeath told the investigation that they witnessed nuns leaving the hospital with up to ten dead babies in shoe boxes and bringing them for burial on the grounds.

The burials were later marked by nails in the wall of a nearby cemetery. The Congregations of the Sacred Heart saw a total of 4,559 babies born there, but didn’t register the burial of 247 infants who died.     

Rose McKinney, an 82 year old mother who had been sent to the mother and baby home in Tuam, stood in her front garden with a mask to watch on a borrowed laptop the announcement of the report.

She said the father of her daughter came to visit her, but the nuns did not allow him to see her or their child.

When the nuns sent Rose on to the Magdalene Laundry, they wrote under reason, “Penitent—twice”. Her two children, who they took from her, were defined as crimes.

Rose said, “I just want justice.”

Watch Irish socialist Brid Smith’s video response status/ 13490560 45910519814?s=2

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