A long, long time ago…but was it really?

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I’ve sat for days now reading accounts of the so called Tuam Babies “scandal”. A scandal indeed, when the bodies of 796 infants were revealed to have been improperly disposed of in a Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway. A scandal is what you call an affair, an indiscretion, a minor theft, a jaunt into improper behaviour. The unknown circumstances of the demise and burial of almost 800 children is not a scandal, it is a criminal act and a travesty against everything the Catholic Church purports to stand for. 

One thing that stood out to me in many reports covering this story were the comments and responses that this type of behaviour and its associated misdeeds were long in the past. People calling for a memorial but not an inquiry. Let it lie now, sure doesn’t it represent an Ireland of long ago, when we didn’t know better, or as our very own Minister for Children put it “a time when our children were not as cherished as they should have been.”

Well, Minister, let me tell you as a 30-year-old woman that I witnessed trails of this behaviour and have been in a position where I could not help those who had been deeply and personally affected by it. I have spoken to people who came to search for birth records having been adopted out from Mother and Baby homes who will never know their family, I spoke to siblings of lost children who were told their kin had just died, no explanation needed as it would be too upsetting for them. I have heard stories from families who tried to gain access to parish records only to be denied at the last hurdle by bishops and priests in over-protective parishes. 

Most recently, I remember when I was in school in and around 1999 or perhaps 2000 in Cork. A girl, no more than 16, arrived at our school one day. She was terrified looking and very quiet; a rather marked difference compared to the behaviour of those around her. Within weeks we started to notice that she was pregnant. She kept to herself but we eagerly tried to make her feel welcome and relaxed and comfortable. She had come from a small town outside of the city and the solution to the problem of her being in the family way was to send her to stay in the big smoke until the baby came, then give the child up for adoption and have her return home like nothing had happened. We would sit through maths classes in our Catholic school and sweat together. I, because I am the world’s most hopeless student of numbers and her, because she was stuck in an unfamiliar urban landscape preparing for a hugely traumatic event. Her belly grew and one day she didn’t come back to school. I have no idea what happened. We did not talk about such things. 

I cannot equate any of that to the horrors of the Tuam discovery, but the shame is no less tangible. That was only a few years ago. It feels disingenuous and horrible and false to stand by and hear the Minister say it is a relic of times past. 

The last Magdalene Laundry closed in Ireland in 1996. This is not a shadow on our history, it is a pulsing part of our present. Memorials are fine and serve their place, but without answers and inquiries they mean nothing. To discuss these issues will lessen the shame for the many, many women who still suffer. To try and seal them over with a marble plaque will encase our shame in a sarcophagus that will undoubtedly shatter again in the future. 

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