Historians' Watch

‘A Dark, Difficult, and Shameful Chapter’

Dr Ciara Breathnach on the Final Report of Ireland’s Mother & Baby Homes Commission of Investigation

Despite the fact that the poor law was dismantled in the 1920s, nineteenth-century workhouses are still prominent features in the Irish landscape. Ominous and foreboding, many became county and district hospitals and served as vital infrastructure for welfare provision in Independent Ireland. Notable by absence in the same landscape are burial grounds, which in part prompted Catherine Corless, a Galway-based historian, to investigate the so-called ‘mother and baby home’ that was established at the former workhouse site in Tuam in 1925 and was run by the Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours. She discovered 796 infant deaths and it raised her curiosity about their burials.

Every county town has a paupers’ grave, a ‘God’s acre’ where our unmarked ‘deserving poor’ ancestors are buried but, Corless posited, these infant bodies were likely contained in a disused septic tank. Survivors of Tuam and other institutions came forward with their stories, with many telling of the horrendous abuse they suffered as a result of being born out of wedlock to poor mothers.  The last of these institutions only closed in 1998. Such was the public outcry about the callous treatment of infant bodies that it prompted yet another Irish government inquiry into historical abuses by State and religious-run institutions.

View of the mass grave at the Bon Secours Mother & Baby Home, Tuam. Via Wikicommons.

The Commission

From the outset the Commission of Inquiry was limited by its terms of reference. In brief, its remit was to examine the entry, treatment, vaccination trials, mortality, burials, post-mortem practices and ‘exit pathways’ of single mothers and their children in 14 institutions (228 institutions are listed in Chapter 2 of the Final Report, pp. 6-12, some small and short-lived) and a ‘representative sample’ of county homes (4 were included, there were 30 more: ch. 2, p. 2).

As five interim reports were published, the constraints of the Commission’s remit became more apparent. If negative feedback from previous unsatisfactory Government inquiries into institutional abuse were not enough of a warning of potential public backlash, the Clann Project (a collaboration between the Adoption Rights Alliance and Justice for Magdalenes Research) actively warned of the impending problems. The Commission’s Final Report, which is 2,865 pages long, was published on 12 January 2021. The report is multi-authored, adopts a mixed methods approach, and is inconsistent in its use of citation. While its statutory limitations are clearly reiterated throughout, the authoritative rounded figures of infant deaths repeated ad nauseum in media outlets in Ireland and abroad are troubling. The limited samples, unclear methods and lack of nuance can only offer an incomplete picture.

The Sources

Civil registration of births and deaths became mandatory in 1864. Power over ‘biological citizenship’ was not easily won, and many ignored obligations to register life events, often because they had observed Roman Catholic sacramental rites of baptism and burial rituals and saw no need to engage with civil registration. Studies have shown that this trend continued until the 1990s in older age cohorts. Registrars could and did use discretion: non-compliance was discretely ignored and prosecutions were rare. When life events were reported by institutions, it was not unusual to see multiple deaths being reported on one day, often once a month. Not all were ‘medically certified’ and what reason would registrars have to question the integrity of the information relayed by institutional informants?

The commission relied heavily on these records in tandem with institutional admission registers, where extant. The Report acknowledges untimely reporting as an issue but the cosy relationship between institutions, the informant and the registrar is not problematised enough. Some institutions operated with impunity, and moreover they were allowed to do so. Each institution was legally required to be registered with the local authority, but the Regina Coeli hostel in Dublin, for example, actively opposed this legal obligation (see ch. 21). Can we trust that these institutions honestly and accurately reported all births and deaths?

There are several points at which information could be corrupted and discretion applied. For example, perinatal deaths (0-7 days) could and were routinely passed off as stillbirths, and there was no legal requirement to record them under Irish law until 1995. This permitted institutions a great degree of leeway with respect to what they reported. The maternal mortality survey is limited to 11 sites (3 of which were county homes) or in referrals from the selected institutions to district hospitals. It is also unclear if the Commission’s use of the World Health Organisation definition of maternal mortality (42 days from the termination of a pregnancy irrespective of outcome (ch. 33, p. 9) includes or excludes deaths occurring in domestic contexts after women had left institutions.

A Confidential Committee established to gather oral testimonies from survivors, provided extensive evidence of both emotional and physical abuse, but its report (based on 539 interviews) seems to have been hardly used by the Commissioners, who write that ‘there is very little evidence of physical abuse’ (Recommendations, p.8). It is disappointing to learn in the Confidential Committee Report (CCR, p. 9) that the interview recordings were destroyed, once their purpose as an aide memoir for official reports was fulfilled. ‘No evidence’ is repeated 102 times in the Final Report: history and memory are pitted against one another in a very unfair, and highly gendered fight. Written records of the powerful trump the spoken words of survivors. This is lip service to oral history, yet other forms of oral testimony, such as the institutions’ reporting of uncertified deaths, are unchallenged.

‘Exit pathways’

Such is the nature of these institutions and their relationship to other entities that it was difficult to adhere rigidly to the terms of reference. The Commission only spent half its allocated budget (€11.5 of €23 million; Introduction, p. 15) and, even operating within the confines of the terms of reference, it could have done a more complete job investigating ‘exit pathways’. ‘Boarding out’, another Poor Law legacy, was a system whereby local families were paid to take care of children and could have been explored further, as the report states thatthe major abuse suffered by former Tuam child residents came when boarded out’ (Recommendations, p. 6). One witness told of how his mother was ‘11 years old when she was raped by a family member in the 1950s and became pregnant with him’. She was brought to a ‘mother and baby home’ where she stayed for 5 years at which point she was moved to another institution while the boy was ‘boarded out’, suffering ‘many beatings and sexual abuse’ from his ‘boarded-out father’ (CCR, pp. 14-15).

With unprecedented access to archives, full life course investigations could have been conducted to assess the impact of institutionalisation on mothers and their children. Some of the underspent money could have been used to employ professional genealogists to track and trace everyone in the institutional admission registers. Social disadvantage, poor health outcomes and reduced life expectancy all have origins in these institutions. The Commission has recommended further research.

Photos of Bessboro’ Mother & Baby Home. Creative Commons via Adoption Rights Alliance Flickr.

Insensitivity and Language

The Commission asked a limited set of questions of documents that should have been regarded with a more critical eye, it opted for reductionist grand narratives, and defended the Old Ireland to the New. The Executive Summary does a disservice to the detailed research in individual chapters and uses insensitive language that has served to cause further hurt to survivors. Blame is placed on Irish society and families with questionable choices of emphasis, for example arguing that ‘it must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge – a harsh refuge in some cases – when the [mothers’] families provided no refuge at all’ (ES, p. 1). It is asserted, without citation, that there was ‘no national outcry’ about high infant mortality (ES, p. 15, contradicted in newspaper citations in subsequent chapters), and – again without citation – that ‘it was widely believed that many first-time unmarried mothers became prostitutes and went on to give birth to additional ‘illegitimate’ children’ (ES, p. 17).

Evidence of ill-treatment on racial grounds also deserved more expert handling. Despite the relentless campaigning of activists like Rosemary Adaser, the racism experienced by mixed-race Irish and Mincéir/Irish Traveller mothers and children is flattened into a simplistic narrative that all unmarried mothers and their children experienced discrimination, and that there was at most some ‘casual, unthinking racism’ (ch. 31, p.10). This is in contrast with much evidence to the Confidential Committee: for example, a mixed-race woman’s son was taken from her in 1983 and put in ‘an annexe’ of a home set aside for children with ‘abnormalities’, where a nun called him ‘filthy’ and ‘Little Black Man’ (CCR, p. 64). Discrimination against children with disabilities is quietly elided as no advocacy group came forward (Introduction, p. 12).

Adoption was not legalised in Ireland until 1952. Semantics won out in the Commissioners’ assessment of the evidence survivors’ gave of their experiences of the adoption process. Many of them detailed pressure and coercion. One witness, who was 15 in 1972 when she gave birth, told that one day ‘one of the nuns sat me down for lunch’ and that by the time she returned to the nursery ‘her baby was gone’. After she left the home, ‘a priest visited her, put papers in front of her and told her to “shut her mouth and sign”‘ (CCR, p. 102). Yet the Commission writes that it ‘found very little evidence that children were forcibly taken from their mothers; it accepts that the mothers did not have much choice but that is not the same as “forced” adoption’ (Recommendations, p. 9).

Investigative journalist Conall Ó Fatharta has been publishing on ‘forced’ and illegal adoptions for over a decade. Adoptions were coerced, and mothers like Philomena Lee were cruelly denied access to information about their children and vice versa. Sensitivity to traumatic experiences should have been central to the report.

Where next?

Survivors suffered lifetimes of discrimination and disadvantage, and deserve redress. Those who profited from their unpaid labour reproductive or otherwise (vaccination trials, work) should contribute substantial sums for the gesture to be meaningful. The remit of redress must extend to other institutions and the numbers should be fleshed out. The Congregations of the Bon Secours and the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary must hand over their records for proper archival treatment: these are not private records, they are the administrative archives of local authority schemes and adopted people should have the right to their records. There is also evidence of criminality which needs to be addressed.

In a speech that combined elements of State apology and apologism, Taoiseach Micheál Martin described the report as ‘definitive’. It is far from that. We are not to blame for the wrongs of our ancestors, but we are fully responsible for how we address them. The Commission was a massive undertaking but it is a partial impression, and until all institutions are investigated fully, we should continue to tread carefully in the hinterlands of those limestone grey buildings that still blot the Irish landscape.


  1. Thank you for this penetrating reading of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission’s whitewashing document. It ignores what is obviously a lot of individual and institutional criminality. This is a real service by HW and Ciara Breathnach.

  2. There is still a lie perpetrated in all of this, also by some historians (not the author), and that is that this scandal only affected the poor in 20th-century Irish society. The narrative suggests that this was a class issue, the implication being that the poorer in society could not afford to take care of children: a horrible, twisted, deceit.

    This is not so. Women and girls from all strata of society – and from all religions ( Protestant and Catholic) had their agency removed when they became pregnant outside of marriage; they were shunned and outcast from “respectable” society, and the apparatus of the State forced them – be they wealthy, middle class, or poor – into institutions, so that their illegitimate issue (their child) be removed by the State and either trafficked or set out to work for decades (forced child labour) in Industrial “Schools” or as slave labour when boarded out to Irish families. The crimes involved are of the most serious nature. Those boarded out to slave labour have not even been mentioned in any of this… and their lives have been likewise destroyed.

    Only the very wealthiest of single women, with access to personal cash (women did not have the rights they have had only for the past 40 years) could have left Ireland, in order to live away from that country while pregnant. However, in most cases, they were coerced into having their children adopted – and were oftentimes found by “charity” organisations in the UK and forcibly sent back to Ireland, and placed in Institutions, all aided and abetted by the Irish police force. Women did not have the independence and/or rights of today, so we must always be mindful of this when understanding the difficulties for pregnant women.

    Yes – there was individual and institutional criminality – this has been covered up by the Commission’s Report as by the current Irish government, and by all previous Irish governments.
    The cover-up continues apace.
    It is time for the European Courts and the UN to take Ireland to hand: these are crimes of murder, torture, trafficking of children, physical abuse, rape, separation of mothers & children, it is a devastating history of abuse by the Irish State. It is a history of State-orchestrated torture of Irish women and their children.

    I have witnessed too much pain and life-long suffering of 80 year-old men and women who have cried, broken down, when interviewed to speak out against the injustice still experienced because of the denial and cover-up of the Irish State. I am appalled by the continual cover-up. I am appalled that nobody has been prosecuted. I am appalled that the names of all those responsible for these crimes have been consistently redacted from witness testimonies. Ireland is not a country whose record of justice should be emulated. Ireland’s prime ministers spout empty apologies to survivors of horrific crimes while, at the same time, they stand over State and government-sponsored cover-up of all crimes.

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