Mother and Baby Home ‘Whitewash’ Compounds Victims’ Torture

Mother and Baby Home ‘Whitewash’ Compounds Victims’ Torture


 Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.
Blase Pascal

While researching my new book Feminism Backwards (Mercier Press, Cork, 2020) long held worries about the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland, particularly its role in relation to women, really snapped into focus for me.

At this moment, as a nation, we are in shock at the horrors pouring into the public discourse about what went on in Mother and Baby Homes. But just step back a minute to consider where this viciousness and misogyny came from.

Most of us are probably aware that the Catholic Church’s hatred of women has a long tail: the first bad girl being of course Eve, who ate the apple, and then persuaded Adam to take a nibble, and whizz-bang-wallop everything went to hell. Since time immemorial, as far as the Church ‘Fathers’ have been concerned, women are the ‘root of all evil.’

The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man, Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Brueghel the Elder, c. 1615.

And, just as centuries of antisemitism reached its apogee in the Holocaust, so centuries of Catholic anti-woman propaganda culminated in the ‘Burning Times’, the Inquisition, and the burning alive of 80,000 women, some believe many more, as ‘witches.’

While the Inquisition didn’t reach here, we got the Great Famine (1845-51) instead. Things were appalling for almost everybody under centuries of British occupation, but after the Famine life suddenly became considerably worse for Irish women. Before this the Catholic Church was not all-powerful: there were few churches, and priests had to be sent to France to study, while seminaries and convents were almost non-existent.

Then the British government made a devilishly clever intervention: trebling its annual subvention to Maynooth University so that from then on the teaching of priests would be done at home, far from revolutionary ideas of liberté, égalité, fraternité! With the terrible outcomes of the Famine scarring Irish society indefinitely their objective was achieved more fully than they could have imagined.

With the last remnants of a clan-based, more matriarchal Gaelic culture destroyed, the big farmers – those who collected rents for landlords – along with the ‘gombeen men’ who extended credit, would decide, no matter what the cost to their sons and daughters, that the family farm should never be subdivided. Ever. These early capitalists suddenly found common cause with the freshly-funded zealots of Maynooth.

Late marriage or no marriage. Permanent Celibacy. Emigration. A convent or a mad house – take your pick young lady.

Abandoned cottage, County Sligo.

Late Nineteenth Century Catholicism

The newly funded, and energised Catholic Church, with their big farmer foot soldiers – only big farmers could afford to send their sons to Maynooth, or their daughters to a newly opened convent – filled the power vacuum left by the post-Famine societal collapse.

Repression became the order of the day.

How was it possible that normal people could be made to accept it? As Goretti Horgan writes in her paper: ‘Changing Women’s Lives in Ireland’: ‘normal life after the Famine was impossible.’ Millions had died horrible deaths, hundreds of thousands had emigrated in ‘coffin ships’, the template for survivors of a repressed, patriarchal, misogynistic, conservative, anti-sex and anti-woman Ireland had been laid, and the Virgin Mary, a goddess stripped of sex, agency and colour, was to be the icon to which all Irish women were to henceforth aspire. ‘Passive, virginal, pious, humble, with an unlimited capacity to endure suffering’, as Tom Inglis put it in ‘Origins and legacies of Irish prudery: Sexuality and social control in modern Ireland.

The Church gained further power when Charles Stewart Parnell promised them control of education and health in return for support in the national struggle. And after the 1916 Easter Rising, when many of the poets and revolutionaries had been shot and thrown into pits of lime by our old friends the British, once again the Church and the gombeen men slithered into the power vacuum, establishing what Sean O’Faolain famously described as their ‘dreary Eden’.

As Peter Lennon says in his wonderful 1967 film ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’ – which has still not been shown on RTE! – we’d survived seven hundred years of British occupation only to sink under the weight of our new (deeply conservative) leaders, and the Catholic clergy. Or as Sean O’Faolain put it: ‘We became a society of (browbeaten) urbanised peasants, without moral courage, constantly observing a self-interested silence.’

Bloody hell.

It seems probable that Éamon de Valera, ‘the father of the nation’, suffered a nervous breakdown during fighting in 1916 and must surely have suffered from PTSD and Survivor Guilt, having been the only signatory of the Proclamation to avoid being shot and thrown into a lime pit thanks to his American passport.

Once in power after 1932 he got joined forces with the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid – the J.Edgar Hoover of Irish society – a prelate with spies everywhere; a sexually repressed celibate, obsessed with women’s sexuality . The imprint of these two damaged men over the Irish Constitution of 1937 is clear.

John Charles McQuaid and Eamon de Valera, December 1940.

The Constitution of 1937 is a document very different from the wonderful Proclamation of 1916. Misogyny, sexual repression, and a viciously anti woman theocracy was set in legal stone, and over the following decades Ireland slowly sank into economic, physical and psychological stagnation, characterised by hypocrisy and widespread mean-spiritedness – if I’m not having a good time then sure as hell you can’t either; with sex the only real sin.

The Church, with its supposedly celibate priests, brothers and nuns had set up a dictatorship; and the State backed them all the way.

The terrible ‘architecture of containment’ – eerily similar to the brutal Workhouses set up by the British complete with terrible food, contempt for inmates and mass graves – grew like a cancer over the whole country. Mother and Baby Homes. Industrial Schools. ‘Orphanages’. Magdalene Laundries. Lunatic Asylums.  The Church had control over, and benefited financially, from them all.

By the 1950’s Ireland, proportionately, had more people incarcerated in such institutions than the Soviet Union.

Of course the middle classes were affected by the general repression, ferociously implemented by the Church – our very own Taliban – but the real horror and damage fell on the working classes, and the rural poor.


There was inter-generational incarceration. Children snatched by the ‘Cruelty Man’ were dumped into Orphanages, from there graduating to Industrial schools, the girls going on into Mother and Baby Homes, Magdalene laundries and, if they dared speak out or speak up, into the nearest lunatic asylum. All of the institutions were abusive. Once inside escape was virtually impossible.

The worst of all the institutions were the ‘Mother and Baby Homes’. The most vulnerable of all:  mostly teenage mothers, very often rape victims, and their ‘illegitimate’ babies were hit hardest. Having a baby ‘outside wedlock’ was never a crime, at least on the statute books. but an all-powerful Church punished ‘offenders’ with torture. The damage usually lasted a lifetime, and the place of incarceration was a charnal house, while the State looked the other way.

The hideous farce was not lost on everyone that all of this took place in a country where you couldn’t even buy a bloody condom, where the priests said ‘life’ was too precious to put on one, that contraception was against God’s will.


Fast forward to January 12th, 2021 and the long-awaited, much-anticipated, very expensive, 4,000 page-long Final Report on the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. Hurray, hurray!

After five years work, with an €11 million euros tab for the taxpayer to pick up, breath was bated.

The government held a webinar for a handful of surviving mothers. The Taoiseach issued a rote apology. Survivors, in confusion, begged for time. They hadn’t even received the Report yet, so how could they comment? The government told them to download it. Download and print a document running into thousands of pages? For many of the women the height of technology at their disposal was a smart phone.

Within hours, social media had exploded with shock and dismay. The historian Catherine Corless, whose tireless work had uncovered the unlawful deaths of 796 babies, and toddlers, stacked and wrapped in rags in old septic tanks once belonging to the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, and forced the government into commissioning this Report, looked deflated and exhausted. ‘It’s a whitewash.’ she said on the evening news.

The mothers, the survivors, who’d waited so patiently for their stories to be finally taken seriously, to be apologised to for the horrors they had been through in the Homes, were gutted at the Report’s conclusions, the choicer of the conclusions were: there was no abuse; there were no forced adoptions.

The girls were doing the same work they would have been doing if they were at home. There was no coercion for girls to enter these places. They were refuges, harsh refuges yes, but refuges all the same. And choicest of all: Society, and the men who fathered these children, must take blame. Everyone in the whole country must take blame.

If everyone’s to blame, no one is to blame, right?

Liveline went into meltdown. Could it really be, after everything that was said and explained and poured over, that this whitewash was the best they could come up with? Joe Duffy often sounded as if he might break down himself. Could it really be that this whitewash was the best they could come up with?


I spoke to some survivors.

Ann O’Gorman described being taken pregnant and aged seventeen into Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork. Her head was shaved, her clothes appropriated, and her name was taken. She remembers ‘a terrible place of sadness, mothers crying, babies crying.’ The girls worked all day, every day, scrubbing and cleaning on their hands and knees. Cutting the nuns’ precious lawns with hand scissors. Every girl lived in fear behind twelve-foot high walls, forbidden to talk to each other, forbidden to make friends. Forbidden to even think of leaving. If any girl did so the Gardaí would pick them up and haul them back again.

When the time came for Ann to give birth she was brought into a bare room and put on a table, with one nun in charge. She didn’t even know where the baby would ‘come out of’. She was terrified. The labour was long, and very difficult. There was no pain relief. Not so much as an aspirin. When her baby was finally born she knew there was something wrong: the nun turned her back and was ‘working on the baby.’ The seventy-three-year-old nurse, asleep upstairs, was sent for. She ripped Ann’s afterbirth out so savagely that Ann passed out for two days. When she awoke, still haemorrhaging, a nun said, ‘You have an angel in heaven’. Ann ran to the window and saw two men, one carrying an orange box, the other a shovel. Were they off to bury her baby?

Ann cried and cried and cried.

For fifty-two-years she begged and pleaded and wept beseeching the nuns to give her information about her baby. She had called her Evelyn. Could she see a birth certificate? Could she see a death certificate? Could she be told where little Evelyn was buried?

The nuns slammed the door in her face. They denied Evelyn had even been born.

Two years ago with the help of another survivor, Catherine Coffey O’Brien, Ann finally got a death certificate for her baby. She and other survivors once again begged the nuns to tell them where their babies were buried.

It turns out there are nine hundred missing babies in Bessborough, though as Ann says, ‘they weren’t buried, they were just thrown in a field.’

Surely the Commission would help? For Ann, for all these mothers, finding their dead babies was all they cared about.

The Commission said the nuns couldn’t remember.

And that was that.

Ann is not looking for redress. She is not even looking for heads on plates (I know I certainly would be), she just wants to know where her baby is buried so she can mark the spot, put in a wildflower garden and a bench so that all the mothers grieving so dreadfully for so many years for their disappeared babes can have somewhere nice to sit. To heal.

I spoke to Sheila. When her baby, a little mixed race boy, was born the nun held him up and asked: ‘What is this?’ When he was being Christened the priest said her father’s offering wasn’t sufficient and raped her in the sacristy.

She said for the nuns it was always all about money. Every week the nuns would take the women in a van down to the social welfare office to sign on. Then the nuns kept the money. The nuns also got money for each mother, and for each baby, from the government. They also got money from the families. They got more money for the rosaries and baby clothes the mothers were forced to make. And they got lots and lots of money when the babies were adopted. Sometimes they kept on getting money for a baby who’d died, or been adopted, by ‘forgetting’ to tell the authorities.

The girls came out of the homes broken-hearted. Empty. You couldn’t speak about it to anyone. You were just dirt.

As for having a choice, Sheila laughs bitterly, We had nothing. None of the girls had anything. The priest would go to the hospital and make sure you wouldn’t be allowed in. He’d go to the baby’s father and tell them to avoid having anything to do with you: it would ‘spoil their chances’ in the future, as for a landlord letting you in pregnant, or with a baby, are you joking me? There was nowhere to go. There was no choice. Nothing. You were blacklisted. They made sure of that.

Sheila says she’ll never forgive the nuns. Ever.

Catholic Emancipation Centenary procession from the Phoenix Park, 1929

Torture and Exploitation

Other Survivors filled the airwaves screaming their outrage over what has been done to them. And now over what is being done again by this whitewash.

Of course there was torture! Of course there was exploitation. Of course there was abuse on a massive scale. Of course the mothers were half-starved and many of the babies starved to death. Of course there were ‘dying rooms’ where babies were left to die. Of course there was brutality, what else do you call giving birth on a table with a nun screaming at you?

“You weren’t shouting and roaring like that when you were having sex were you?”

Of course it was inhuman to labour without so much as an aspirin, with you and your baby butchered in the process by nuns who had no training in midwifery, and zero interest in making your labour and little babe’s passage into the world any easier, au contraire, your labour was in return for your sins; your little babe was the result of sin; if your baby died, or you died, what of it? Both of you were contaminated, you were nothing, you were filth and nobody wanted you. Nobody. 

Of course there were forced adoptions. What else do you call a child ripped out of a mother’s arms? What else do you call a mother shown the door, her little one kept back so it could be sold: sometimes for thousands of dollars to returning WWII American GI’s; to ‘good Catholic families’, and/or whoever else fancied a baby? Passports, birth certs, names, all handily manufactured by the powers that be.

The nuns put advertisements in the Lost & Found offering babies, as if they were puppies.

Of course there was abuse on a massive scale. What else do you call the discovery of seven-hundred-and-ninety-six little bodies wrapped in rags and ‘stacked like Cidona bottles’ in old septic tanks in Tuam? What else do you call the ‘burials’ of nine hundred babies in the field in Bessborough? What else do you call death certificates that showed babies died of heart failure, malnutrition, ‘choking on porridge’, rickets?

And of course the government, successive governments, knew. One infamous inspection in 1944 described a room crammed with babies, ‘emaciated and not thriving’, aged between three weeks and thirteen months there were ‘fragile, pot bellied and emaciated.’ Another doctor lifted nappies to find them ‘crawling with maggots’.

For decade after decade the government looked the other way.

Now many survivors believe the Commission is compounding that dereliction.

What happened was, and is, the Church the State’s responsibility. They were the people in power.

Image: Richard Tilbrook (wikicommons)

It Can’t Be Goodbye

After a week of agony for the mothers, the Commission responded to the flood of desperate queries with a message to the effect that their job was done, and that they were shutting up shop. Goodbye.

Except it can’t be goodbye.

The government, the Church and the Commission in refusing to engage, and in trying to spread the blame so widely that no one is really to blame, are compounding an already ghastly wound. It’s a bit like what happened when the first little bones were discovered in Tuam: the local priest came in, threw a bit of holy water around and said a prayer, then the government came in and dumped a load of concrete on their graves. It might have seemed like a clever solution in the 1970’s. This time round it just won’t wash. It shouldn’t wash.

This time round the Catholic Church needs to be put in the dock.

All of their assets, currently handily concealed under ‘charitable’ status must be revealed, their ‘charitable’ status removed. Now, and forever.

All of  their financial entanglements with our schools, hospitals, day care centres, mental health facilities – everything – must be revealed.

They must be forced to pay the remainder (74%) of the redress they slithered out of previously, and pay in full, proper and generous redress to the mothers and babies, the families, they tortured in their terrible ‘Homes’.

Not that it’s going to be easy. Last weekend the ‘Primate’ of all Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin – sounding spookily like Daniel O’Donnell – said he didn’t wish the Church to be ‘scapegoated’ for what happened.

Scapegoated? Really?

A growing number of people believe the Church should be criminally prosecuted for what happened. They orchestrated this terrible hate against women. They kept at it and at it and at it, until the whole country was distorted and weird. They kept at it until their coffers were  bulging and when finally, FINALLY, the State was forced by the Women’s Movement to bring a pittance in for ‘unmarried mothers’ and terrified young girls found they could manage, they could keep their babies, and didn’t need the terrible ‘Homes’ anymore, the nuns said; “Grand so”, sold the properties for millions and pocketed the cash. Same as they’ve always done. Just like other dictatorships drunk on power, hypocrisy and an inflated sense of their own importance have done.

This time it has to change. This time we, as a society, and the government in our name, has to stand up to the Church.

So many of the survivors who’ve spoken out in the last week say the one good thing this time around is that society is listening to them. That this time around society is turning the nuns’ and the Church’s weapon, used so viciously against all those terrified young mothers, for so long, against them: NOBODY WANTS YOU. Nobody.

We’ve had  so many reports, so many television programmes, so many books, radio documentaries, films, plays. We’ve had the Ferns Report, the Ryan Report, the Murphy Report, the McCoy Report, and now this Report. All of them documenting in vivid and horrific detail the violent abuse – sexual, physical and psychological – by the religious of the Catholic Church. Their victims? Irish babies, Irish children, Irish teenagers, Irish mothers.

The government Reports take years and cost millions in taxpayers money. The Church says sorry. The government says sorry. A pathetic redress scheme is put in place mostly for the benefit of lawyers, and which taxpayers mostly finance. Criminal convictions for criminal behaviour by priests? By nuns? The stumping up of millions by the Catholic Church? You must be joking.

We’ve come so far in liberating ourselves in Ireland. We have a young, educated, and brilliant population absolutely aghast at what has happened. It is time to bring the whole horrible mess out into the light of day. It is past time to separate the Church from the State. It is time to grow up, and face the Church down.

It is what we, as a society, what the mothers and survivors, desperately need.

This time we must do it properly. For once, and for all.

Featured image: A shrine, with an image of the Virgin Mary, is seen in the corner of an enclosed area on part of the site of the former mother-and-baby home run by the Bon Secours nuns, where the remains of an unknown number of babies and toddlers were found buried, in Tuam, Co. Galway, March 7, 2017. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls


About Author

Rosita Sweetman is a member of the well-known Sweetman family, a brewing, legal and political Irish dynasty dating back to Norman times. She is a founding member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, (the IWLM) which flamed brilliantly into life in a horribly restrictive and repressive 1970’s Ireland; restrictions that impacted mostly on women. When the architecture of Patriarchy gave all the advantages to men – no matter how useless they were. The IWLM existence was short lived, but it’s impact continues to this day. It gave birth to the first organisations in the country that helped ‘battered wives’, women in crisis pregnancies, women in need of support at work. Most of all it opened women’s eyes to a different way of life, a life not dictated to them by the Church. Rosita has worked in writing and journalism since her teens. First at the BBC in London, then RTE, the (ex) Irish Press, the Sunday Independent, the Irish Times. She has published three books. ‘On Our Knees’, 1972, a look at contemporary Ireland via a smorgasbord of interviews with interesting people. ‘Fathers Come First’, 1974, a coming of age novel, re-issued as a modern classic by the Lilliput Press in 2015. And ‘On Our Backs’, 1979, a startling look at ‘sexual attitudes in a changing Ireland’. All sold out their print run of 60,000. Rosita believes passionately in equality, and that Feminism really can save the world from the planet wide disaster we are currently plunged into. She is mother to wonderful jeweller Chupi, and to wonderful filmmaker Luke, and very, very recently, grandmother to Chupi and Brian’s beautiful little daughter Aya.

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