Since the 'dead babies in Tuam' story *hit* the headlines I've read a lot about it on the internet in particular and I wonder a lot of things and this is a difficult blog to write because where do I let my thoughts go.

An extremely emotional subject.

The first things I thought when I heard the story and as I listened to the immediate reaction here in Ireland was

1. Do you have any idea of what life was like for those people (the mothers).

2. Do you remember what it was like to live in a religious (Catholic) dominated country?

3. Do you realise that if this was the case over in Tuam, then it will also be the case with every Mother & Child institute we had in this country at that time.

and my final thought,

4. Not one of you making a comment has any real idea of the history of the period in our country when Mother & Baby homes were so important.

Let me begin with one thing I have read where someone has said that Priests did not baptise children born outside marriage.  That may have been true for some priests, but, I can guarantee you, that I could not count the number of babies I have seen listed in Roman Catholic parish registers as being illigitimate or bastard and I have worked/transcribed a lot of Roman Catholic parish registers (see and go to the county pages and for the most you will see some parish register index.)

Do you know that in the days when we had working 'Workhouse' (pre 1845 forwards), the Workhouses had ladies in their employment who used to go round the workhouse area at night 'collecting' babies that they would find lying on the ground somewhere in the parish and that these babies were bundled into a basket on top of one another.  In theory, these babies were supposed to be brought to the Workhouse to be looked after *but* some of these ladies would simply go into the area of another workhouse and 'dump' the babies they had found in their own workhouse area.  Also, some of those babies would have died in transit.

What life was like for these mothers : the story about baby deaths from Tuam is for a time frame prior to my birth, *but* back in the 1970's, if a girl got pregnant outside marriage in my home town and if her parents were alive, she was shunted off to a Mother & Baby home and as soon as the baby was born it was 'put up' for adoption.  The girl was given no choice in the matter.  I had a friend when I was in university and she got pregnant and this happened her, for as long as I knew her after that, she always worried about what had happened her little boy, where he had gone to and what his new parents were like.  I knew girls in my home town who did become pregnant, who did keep their babies and then they were 'marked' - and that went on for years.  These days it is different.  In the days before the 70's, life must have been horrific for these young mothers.

Living in a one religion dominated country: The Priests RULED - it was as simple as that.  The Priests, the Nuns - they were, I won't say 'adored' but they were respected.  You walked past the priest and you bowed your head, or you nodded you always acknowledged them.  The Priest came to your house (if it was the house of an ordinary person), then the Priest was brought into the best room and treated as though he was God almighty.  When you got in trouble, it was off to the Priest you went for help, support.  You have to have lived through this to understand it.  Life is not like that now, but, it was.

The Nuns - God love them, in a lot of ways they have been bashed about.  I think that few who have not lived in a Catholic dominated country with religious running schools can ever understand the nuns.  If you stop and think about it we had nuns in this country from the 1800's - how have they survived this long if they were as bad as I have seen them painted these last few years.  I have no doubt that there were bad nuns but I also have no doubt that these were outnumbered by the good nuns.  I am a non-practising Catholic so my defense of nuns here has nothing to do with religion, it has to do with my experience of these ladies.  

I was sent to boarding school when I was about 11 years old, a boarding school run by nuns.  We were allowed see our family one Sunday a month for about 3 hours and I can honestly say that in my 5 years in that school I got into trouble for being a bit bold, but, I was never hit once.  Having Mother Malachy's finger stuck into my shoulder and hearing her say my name would make me cringe, but, her pointy finger being stuck into my shoulder was as bad as it got.  The school I was in had what we called 'the laundry' where girls (who were poor) had a job cleaning clothes.

In a poor country (and that is what Ireland was - a backward, 3rd level country), we had no money to mind these mothers and babies.  The mothers were for the most part 'looked down on' because they had gotten pregnant outside marriage, so..............who was going to deliver their babies?  Who was going to mind the babies?  Where were the mothers going to get the money to deal with this?  We didn't have social services, the parents of the girls didn't have the money to pay to mind their daughters or their grandchildren.

We were paupers *but* we had the nuns, and the nuns took in the mothers and 'looked after' the babies.  Yes, they are criticised for 'adopting' out the babies BUT what right have we to stand over them and judge what they did thinking it was the best for the children.   Tomorrows generation will judge us for judging that earlier generation

I once worked with the books which had belonged to an Undertaker in a town.  The man had listed the details for each person he had buried in these books - he began this work we'll say about 1923.  One listing I read was for a baby and a note in the book, it said "We don't need a coffin we have a shoe-box".  My mother was a Doctor (GP) and I went home that day and said to her do you know what they buried a baby in a shoe-box and her reply "For God's sake Jane, of course babies were buried in shoe-boxes, these people had no money".  We don't think of something like that, we have a habit of comparing what we read about the past with our own lives and that is wrong.

I think I've said enough.

We needed the nuns and the minding they did of these mothers and babies.  We were a poor country rampant with disease - outside of our famines, we had typhus, cholera, TB.  When I was a child, TB was the big killer - people would get sent to Peamount.

The nuns I lived (1970-75) with were not cruel or nasty.

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Comment by Geraldine Callaghan on June 30, 2014 at 7:04am
Dr. Jane, I promised myself I would not comment on this sad, painful subject again. I just read your comment and feel you explained it very well. I was raised in Ireland for 17 years, I attended the convent of Mercy for 12 of the 17. I have fond memories of my dear nuns, yes, they were strict and commanded respect; in my opinion this was a good thing. They did show love and compassion also. As for the Mother/baby homes, they were necessary for many reasons, poverty, ignorance, disease, disgrace to name a few. Ireland was a 3rd. World country, however, in all this discussion,condemnation of the Church and Clergy, no one seems to comment on the Fathers or the Fathers Families role in these unwanted babies! Why? Just as the Roman Catholic Church got a pass for a long time so did the other person involved in the pregnancy and, for that matter the families of the unfortunate mother to be, they also ostracized their own child for bringing disgrace to the families. Unwanted pregnancies happened everywhere even in our own US. As recently as the 1980's my sister-in-law took in a girl from a very "respected family" in the Bronx that found herself pregnant. A member of the Clergy asked her if she would. She was kind enough to do it, no payment was involved, just an act of kindness. She was appalled that the mother (grandmother)never even called the 16 year old daughter, deep anger prevailed. I know I'm ranting, but there is a wide and varied area for blame outside of the Catholic Church, nuns and Priests. Sadly, we now have made a 360 deg. turn babies everywhere without responsibility or stable family life. Yes, in my opinion these children are suffering in one way or another.
Comment by Bit Devine on June 30, 2014 at 10:27am

Thanks you, Jane, a chara.. for offering your own perspective

It is true that the Nuns get painted with a broad black brush... one bad apple and all of that ...  I've only known a few "bad" nuns...the ones that make you cringe and shudder even if you hadn't done anything wrong

We had a home here in Tucson, for unwed mothers, Sister Raffie, as she was called, ran the home...along with Sister Navita... late 1960s until the early 1980s... I remember visiting there as a child, with my Grandma & my mother...taking baby blankets and booties that my grandmother had knitted & crocheted///It was neither dark & gloomy nor was it heartless...

Geraldine, a chara, the Fathers are never spoken of... and you are correct that it isn't fair... but such were the times... Incest, molestation, rape, promises made that weren't kept after the deed was done... but no accountability toward the male half of the equation... all blame and shame fell on the matter her age

Comment by Fran Reddy on June 30, 2014 at 3:23pm

Dr. Jane, I agree with your article here. It is too easy to paint an institution black and forget about any good it has done. The first thing that jumps into my head is always "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."


Comment by Geraldine Callaghan on June 30, 2014 at 3:23pm
Bit, you, or I or Dr. Jane or the WG family will not solve this sad time in Irish history. I guess what draws our interest is ... It's Irish and we would like to think that nothing like this could happen there especially that it had Catholic Church involvement. The Irish were/ are a very proud race and unearthing this kind of news and publishing it touches a raw nerve. Yes, we are human. I can believe that it's very possible it did happen in those dark and unsettled times and keep in mind many people were undereducated. I get my "Irish Up" when I read the various comments that sound judgemental and refer to "Holy Catholic Ireland" with a caustic tone, also when some try to drag politics into the comments referring to Fox News, conservatives and such. That was what/ is great about the WG, they seem to be partisan and avoid " The Tabloid" nonsense. Bit, do you live in Tuson? Thanks for a thoughtful comment.

Founding Member
Comment by Nollaig 2016 on June 30, 2014 at 5:14pm

Am I pro-life or pro-choice, I would have to say that I’m on the fence as are many.  I think I would choose to die rather than abort a baby of mine, needless to say I’ve walked a mile in shoes of one who’s been very lucky in life.  I think the right to choose works for both sides of the aisle.  It can save a life (as in when pressure is put on a Mother with a developmental or psychiatric condition to abort) She has the right to choose.  Or a life can be lost – The girl who goes to England to seek abortion due to the stigmatism associated with being an unmarried Mother or the woman who is financially unable to support this child.

I believe that as the stigmatism lessens so does the abortion rate. And in good economies does it lessen too.  I wonder what the Stat’s are on this.

I am not anti Catholic but I do believe that there are many good reasons as in the US for separation of Church and State.

Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on July 6, 2014 at 2:30pm

One of the problems I have had with the media and some politicians in dealing with this story is that it is presented as if the stigma of an out of wedlock child during this time was an uniquely Irish/Catholic issue.  I would be hard pressed to think of a country, irrespective of the predominate religion, where unwed mothers were not stigmatized during the period this home was in operation during the 1920s-1960s.   The main difference is that being a poor country unwed Irish mothers and their families did not have the resources to hide pregnancies with  a convenient "tour of the continent" or "semester away  at school" or  other such device.  Remember during this same period that is being discussed that the renowned actress Ingrid Berman was blacklisted by Hollywood and denounced from the floor of the US Senate for having a baby as a result of an affair with  Roberto Rossellini

Before anyone wags their finger at "Catholic Ireland"  they should look at how other societies (particularly their own) of the time handled the issue.

Comment by Dr. Jane Lyons on July 6, 2014 at 3:48pm


Thank you.  The most balanced observation I have seen yet.  Jane

Founding Member
Comment by Nollaig 2016 on July 6, 2014 at 5:36pm

We seem to agree that there was an unjust shame associated with unmarried Mothers, be it through Church or society.  Some of the best Mothers and Fathers I know are single parents.  As long as we realize that this stigma is unjust then we will not be doomed to repeat the past.  


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