That Dáil Éireann:
acknowledges the scandal that occurred at the Bon Secours Sisters institution in Tuam, County Galway, where almost 800 children died while in the ‘care’ of a religious order, in a State regulated institution, and were placed in a mass unmarked grave over a period of five decades, from the 1920s to the 1960s;
notes the Government’s intention to give early consideration on the best course of action to take into investigating the deaths of these children and the appalling manner of their interment;
recognises that the abusive practices which occurred at the Bon Secours Sisters mother and baby ‘care’ home were not unique to that one institution and were replicated in similar institutions across the State including what occurred at Bethany Home; and
calls on the Government to:
— immediately initiate a fully independent judicial inquiry, with terms of reference agreed by the Houses of the Oireachtas, into this latest shameful episode involving a religious order and the failure of the State in its duty of care to its most vulnerable and defenceless citizens; the inquiry to consider the so-called ‘care’ regime in place, the infant mortality rates and the burial of children in unmarked graves at all mother and baby homes in the State; and
— set a date for the establishment of this inquiry before the Dáil summer recess and all of the report’s findings be published.
Molaim an rún in ainm Theachtaí Dála Shinn Féin. I move the motion in the name of the Sinn Féin Deputies.
I want to avail of the opportunity to urge all Deputies to support the motion. We moved quickly to table this motion when it became clear that an inquiry is absolutely necessary and must be undertaken as soon as possible. We have been of this view for many years in the context of matters of this nature. I wish to show goodwill towards the Government in the context of its announcement earlier today that it is to establish a statutory commission of investigation. We await the full details and terms of reference relating to said commission.
We have known for a long time that women and children placed by the State in the so-called care of religious orders and other church institutions in the five decades from the 1920s to the 1970s were treated as the outcasts of society and as non-people. We have seen fully revealed the horrors of the industrial schools for boys and young men and of the Magdalen laundries for girls and young women. We know something of the regime endured by young mothers and children in mother and baby homes, which included the effective imprisonment of pregnant women, forced adoptions and the sale of babies by religious orders to wealthy Irish-American families. The most recent revelations in respect of Tuam have, as I said during the statements taken earlier this evening, highlighted more of the horrifying aspects of the regimes which obtained in mother and baby homes. Immediate action is required in order to uncover the full truth. Foremost in our thoughts should be the surviving mothers who endured what effectively was incarceration in the institutions to which I refer and also the surviving adopted children who wish to discover the truth about the identity of their parents, siblings and wider families.
As I and others noted in the statements taken earlier, great credit is due an ordinary Irish citizen, Ms Catherine Corless, who painstakingly researched the Bon Secours mother and baby home in her native town of Tuam, County Galway. Ms Corless has pursued this matter for the past number of years and in 2013 her research revealed the scale of children's deaths and burials at the Bon Secours home. Between 1925 and 1961, 796 children died at the home in question. Their names are recorded in the register of births and deaths in Galway and it was from there that they were accessed by Ms Corless.
What has brought this sorry story to national and international attention is the manner of the children's burial, namely, anonymously, without any kind of individual identification or markers and, apparently, in a mass grave. This has caused widespread revulsion and reopened and highlighted anew the scandal of mother and baby homes in this State. In the past week, some have suggested that what has been highlighted is nothing new. In one sense, that is correct. We knew these homes existed and that they were places of suffering for women and children. We did not know, however, the full extent of what occurred in them and nor do we know the records relating to them that might still be available or what facts may yet be revealed. The importance of this point was highlighted by the historian, Dr. Conor Mulvagh, in a comprehensive article in The Sunday Business Post on 8 June last. Dr. Mulvagh indicated in his piece that last week he made contact with the Dublin diocesan archives and was informed that a number of files previously closed to the public are now open. Some of these files relate to mother and baby homes. Crucially, they were never examined by the teams which carried out the investigations relating to the Murphy, Ryan and McAleese reports. Careful searches will have to be conducted in respect of other records, particularly those relating to mother and baby homes outside Dublin.
One such institution was the Bessborough home in Cork city. In her 1998 book, The Light in the Window, Ms June Goulding, a former midwife at the home, described the horrors inflicted on women in Bessborough, including the denial of pain relief to those in labour and of proper medical attention after they had given birth. The author described a silent, prison-like regime where pregnant women and young mothers were treated like criminals. Even for a woman to cry out during childbirth was forbidden. The founder of the Bessborough Mother and Baby Support Group, Helen Murphy, was born at the home and left when she was seven months old. On Sunday last she spoke for all those directly affected by the regimes in these so-called homes when she said, "We want the truth to be known. We want justice to be done, and we want Bessborough to be included in any form of inquiry the Government is now going to order." She continued:
We founded the Bessborough Mother and Baby Support Group as an outlet for all those whose lives were affected by this place. The purpose of it is to remember the people who were there, and especially the babies who died. But also to remember all of the mothers who gave birth there. We want to add our voice to the call for an inquiry into what went on at the mother and baby homes, how many babies died, and where are those babies buried. We want answers.
The full facts and figures, or as many as can be uncovered, need to be revealed from the records and from the testimony to the statutory investigation. We know from the research so far, that 796 children died in Tuam between 1925 and 1961. In 1933, of 120 admissions to Tuam, 42 babies died, a shocking 45% mortality rate. The rate in Bessborough was 39%, at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea it was 37.5% and at Pelletstown in Dublin it was 34%. At one stage, the death rate at Bessborough reached 61%. Between 1922 and 1949, 219 children died in the Protestant-run Bethany Home in Dublin. Of these, 175 were aged between four weeks and two years. A further 25 were aged from a number of hours up to four weeks and 19 were stillborn. Cemetery records indicate that the causes of death included 54 from convulsions, 41 from heart failure, 26 from starvation and seven from pneumonia.
One of the shocking aspects of mother and baby homes that requires answers is the use of children for medical experiments. Vaccination trials were carried out on 58 children in 1960 and 1961. Those children were from the mother and baby homes at Bessborough in Cork, Castlepollard in County Westmeath, Mount Carmel industrial school in Moate, County Westmeath, Dunboyne and Stamullen in County Meath and St. Patrick's on the Navan Road in Dublin.
Over a decade ago when the Government of the day tried to initiate an investigation into these trials, members of the medical profession took legal action to prevent the investigation and their appeals were upheld by the courts. It seems that professional reputations are more important in Irish law than finding out the truth about the gross violation of the rights of defenceless and voiceless children.
That brings us to the question of why these crimes were perpetrated and why were they allowed to happen. Following the foundation of the Free State, as it was then described, in 1922 an unholy and deeply reactionary alliance was formed between the political elite and the Catholic hierarchy. This was part of the carnival of reaction to the revolution of 1916-21. It was a denial of the democratic and egalitarian principles on which Dáil Éireann had been founded. In the democratic programme of the First Dáil, adopted on 21 January 1919, it was stated: "It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland". It was also stated: "The Irish Republic fully realises the necessity of abolishing the present odious, degrading and foreign Poor Law System...". The Minister knows a good deal about history. As he is aware, the poor law system treated the poor like burdens on the local community. Rather than provide social welfare support to them, it imprisoned them in poorhouses and workhouses. In the Free State the poor law system was replaced but not by the social support envisaged by the democratic programme. Many workhouses were converted to institutions run by religious orders and these became the prisons of those regarded as the outcasts and non-people of Irish society. The most scorned among these were women who became pregnant outside marriage. Let us remember that these women had not broken any law of the State. They had, supposedly, in the minds of those who held to that view, violated the moral code of the churches, Catholic and Protestant, and breached the perceived norms of Irish society of the day. The State was content to see the churches punish them in this way and, in so doing, failed disastrously in its duty of care not only to the woman concerned but also to the children of the nation as a whole.
There have been attempts to place the blame on wider Irish society dating back some time and again in recent days because of the deeply conservative social attitudes that dominated in those decades. It should be acknowledged that the social attitudes of the times were disdainful of great numbers of people and cast them out of society. However, this can too easily be twisted into a view that since everyone was to blame, no one was to blame. In turn, this allows the powerful in Irish society to evade accountability and responsibility once again. The reality was that there were powerful social and economic forces, powerful men of church and State, who ruled this society and ensured women, children, the poor and the marginalised were kept in their place or what those same powerful men decided was their place. Much has changed for the better but much has yet to change. Earlier this evening the Joint Committee on Health and Children heard a report from the Ombudsman for Children. Before concluding I will cite part of it. In the investigation the Ombudsman for Children found a lack of consistency across many areas of the country in how the reporting of child abuse, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect, was handled, despite the existence of national guidelines for almost ten years. The findings include references to poor inter-agency co-operation between the Garda and the HSE, poor record-keeping, evidence of insufficient efforts to drive forward implementation of the Children First guidelines, poor quality assurance and a lack of consistent local procedures. Furthermore, there was a lack of a 24 hour external access mechanism for people reporting child abuse.
It is very important to investigate the truth of past wrongs and abuses such as those in mother and baby homes, not only for the survivors but also for the well-being of our society today and into the future. We must learn how to do better and ensure a safer, healthier and more fulfilling future for all the children of the nation. Accordingly, I appeal to the Minister and Members to agree that when we conclude the debate tomorrow evening we do so with one voice and go forward together to resolve what has been hanging over all of us for decade after decade: a litany of tragedies and dreadful abuse of innocent women and children.