The State failed you – Taoiseach apologises over Ireland’s mother and baby homes

James Ward, Cate McCurry, Michael McHugh and Michelle Devane, PA
·5-min read

The Irish premier has apologised for the “profound generational wrong” on the survivors of homes for unmarried mothers and their children.

Micheal Martin said the mothers and children were failed by the State.

Speaking in the Irish parliament, the Dail, the Taoiseach said: “I apologise for the shame and stigma which they were subjected to and which, for some, remains a burden to this day.

“In apologising, I want to emphasise that each of you were in an institution because of the wrongs of others.

“Each of you is blameless, each of you did nothing wrong and has nothing to be ashamed of.

“Each of you deserved so much better.

“The lack of respect for your fundamental dignity and rights as mothers and children who spent time in these institutions is humbly acknowledged and deeply regretted.

“The Irish State, as the main funding authority for the majority of these institutions, had the ultimate ability to exert control over these institutions, in addition to its duty of care to protect citizens with a robust regulatory and inspection regime.

“This authority was not exerted and the State’s duty of care was not upheld.

“The State failed you, the mothers and children in these homes.”

Mr Martin said it is the duty of a republic to be willing to hold itself to account.

He said the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes report recognises a “profound failure of empathy”.

The report found that the institutions for women who fell pregnant out of wedlock produced high levels of infant mortality, misogyny and stigmatisation of some of society’s most vulnerable.

Many mother and baby homes were run by Catholic nuns.

The Taoiseach said that the Government will implement the recommendations set out by the commission.

Mr Martin said that a suite of memorialisation, educational and research commitments will support national reflection and enduring remembrance.

The Government pledged to introduce information and tracing legislation as well as bringing in a range of supports to allow the survivors to access personal information.

Mr Martin added: “We must learn the lesson that institutionalisation creates power structures and abuses of power and must never again be an option for our country.

“Throughout this report former residents talk of a feeling of shame for the situation they found themselves in. The shame was not theirs – it was ours.”

Tanaiste Leo Varadkar said for too many years, Ireland was a “cold house” for children born outside of marriage.

“This report exposes the chilling consequences of such a mindset,” he told the Dail.

“Too many children were seen as a stain on society, but the truth is that it was our society that was deeply stained.

“As the report shows, this was a stifling, oppressive and deeply misogynistic culture. A cold house for most of its people.

“It’s shocking to read that more than 9,000 babies died in these institutions but in some ways it is more shocking that this is not a revelation.

“The statistics were known at the time. It was known that children in mother and baby institutions were more likely to die in infancy than other children, including other children born outside of marriage.

“There was no public outcry, no Dail debates or motions, no media inquiries or interest.

“These were second-class citizens, lesser mortals, to be treated as such, perhaps for their whole lives, solely due to the circumstance of their conception and birth.

“It was a conspiracy of shame and silence and cruelty.”

Mother and baby homes report
Micheal Martin said the mother and baby homes scandal was a dark chapter in the country’s history (Julien Behal/PA)

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman said the report contains a number of important recommendations, which his department has committed to implementing.

He said that by bringing forward action and legislation, the Government will attempt to rebuild the relationship between the State and the survivors.

“The process begins with the State apology,” Mr O’Gorman added.

“Central to the response is access to personal information and legislation is being brought forward this year.”

He said that survivors will be able to access information from his department when the legislation is enacted.

Among its findings, the report exposed the “appalling” levels of death among the very youngest – more than one in 10 children.

Some of the institutions were owned and run by the local health authorities – the county homes Pelletstown, Tuam and Kilrush.

Others were owned and run by religious orders; for example, the three homes run by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, Bessborough, Sean Ross and Castlepollard (the Sacred Heart homes).

Abortion debate
The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, has apologised to survivors (Niall Carson/PA)

Some of the homes were in very poor physical condition.

Many of the women suffered emotional abuse and were often subject to denigration and derogatory remarks, the commission of investigation’s report said.

Almost 9,000 children died, approximately 15% of all youngsters who were in the institutions, it found.

Major causes included respiratory infections and gastroenteritis.

The proportion of women admitted to such homes in Ireland was probably the highest in the world in the 20th century, the commission of investigation said.

There were about 56,000 unmarried mothers and 57,000 children in the 18 mother and baby homes and county homes investigated.