The report of the Commission of Investigation into the mother-and-baby homes has received huge coverage in the British media, reflecting, no doubt, the number of survivors of the homes who settled in Britain. This is the third and final blog looking at this important report for Irish social history in the 20th century. Here Declan McSweeney looks at the reception of the Report in Britain
It is a reminder of the days when so many Irishwomen were referred to as ‘PFI’ (Pregnant From Ireland). One of the most shocking aspects of the report was the reference to women who had moved to cities like London or Liverpool and were effectively kidnapped by their families and forced back to hellish institutions, as outlined here: Mother and Baby Homes: State paid for 2,400 pregnant women to be repatriated from England
|Mother and Baby Homes: State paid for 2,400 pregnant women to be repatri… Aoife Moore and Elaine Loughlin Many pregnant single women that travelled to Britain found it was less welcoming than they had hoped|
It is also a salutary reminder of the fact that Britain, for all its faults, has long been a haven for Irish people from ill-treatment of one kind or another.
The recent announcement by the Irish Government of its Diaspora Strategy has featured a recognition that many were effectively forced out of Ireland down the years.
It reflects a reality which too many in Ireland itself are either unaware of or are unwilling to discuss, namely that emigration from Ireland was never solely down to economic factors or lack of suitable employment, even though they clearly were driving factors for many.
Rather, the facts are that many Irish were effectively driven out of their homeland for a range of reasons down the years, due to unfavourable social attitudes. While we may think that this reflects a bygone era, with Ireland now renowned for its more socially liberal outlook, we should not ignore new forms of intolerance which can coexist with such attitudes.
It is generally estimated that more than half the survivors of Ireland’s industrial schools and Magdalen laundries moved to Britain, where they were able to begin a new life without the stigma attached to their background.
However, we should also remember the single mothers who fled to Britain precisely to avoid being placed in such institutions – I have met a number of people who told me stories of how their mothers moved here for that reason.
This wasn’t just something that happened back half a century ago – I am aware of women who made that journey as recently as the 1990s, not necessarily to avoid being in institutions but because they did not want to the the objects of gossip.
The obsession with ‘respectability’, particularly on the part of middle class Irish families, had enormous consequences for women placed in the institutions but also for both men and women who fell foul of a mentality which perceived relationships in economic terms based on social status – the idea that a man from, say, Foxrock, should not be with a woman from Ballyfermot, or a man from Montenotte with a woman from Gurranabraher.
While the Catholic Church did not do enough to challenge such mores, there were exceptions – I recall a sermon by the late Father Michael Lynn in Tullamore nearly 40 years ago, in which he challenged parents on their attitudes to such marriages by their offspring.
I am aware that the reaction to the report has already split between those who emphasise the responsibility of the churches and those who stress the failures of the families of these young girls, and the fathers of their babies.
In reality, it is a complex issue and saying it was just down to X or Y is too simplistic. What is beyond doubt is that infant mortality in the institutions was abnormally high, and that while there were similar institutions in Britain and other lands, the proportion of single mothers housed in the Irish homes does appear to have been higher.
The stigma attached to single motherhood no doubt reflected a very rigid interpretation of Christian teaching, but also economic factors – an obsession with property and the fear of the family farm being lost to ‘strangers’.
The report outlined how the reluctance of many fathers to marry the girls they made pregnant was often linked to the fear that their siblings would be ‘tarnished’ by being related – again, this attitude has not totally disappeared.
It’s worth noting that others who were seen seen as outside the ‘mainstream” of Irish society emigrated in disproportionate numbers – the decline in the Protestant and Jewish populations after independence was partly down to emigration and partly the effects of Ne Temere.
Many couples left Ireland because one was Catholic and the other Protestant, and this continues, to a lesser extent, in Northern Ireland today. However, changing attitudes have contributed to the dramatic growth in the Republic’s Protestant population in the last three decades, along with the growth, from a much smaller base, of the Jewish community.
Likewise, mixed-race Irish people and those from the gay and lesbian population historically migrated to Britain in large numbers. Today, it remains the case that some ethnically-mixed couples have to leave Ireland for the same reasons as was previously linked to the Catholic/Protestant mix.
For all its problems, Britain has been a land of welcome for many Irish down the decades, a land where anonymity provided freedom to live one’s own life in the context of a society long used to diversity.
If the Diaspora Strategy results in a greater understanding of why these pressures arose in the first place, fewer people will have to make such journeys in the future.