Reporting on the Tuam story has often been wild and sensational, and out of touch with known facts.
Brendan O’Neill, whose website describes himself as ““A Marxist proletarian firebrand.” (The Guardian)“, has a blog on the story of the misreporting at
The Tablet this week reports: “Fr Fintan Monaghan, spokesman and archivist for the diocese of Tuam said the diocese’s baptismal register showed that 2,005 children from St Mary’s mother and baby home had been baptised from 1937 to 1961.” Proportionately that would mean perhaps around 3000 children were baptised from the Tuam home 1924 – 1961. This, with the 796 recorded deaths, would indicate a mortality rate of about 20% overall. This would need to be related to the national infant mortality rates in those years, and to statistics in other countries.
It seems that mortality rates for what we used to call “illegitimate” children are generally higher in most if not all countries than for children whose parents are married, even today. The reasons for this are unclear. Possible causes may be that the mother did not approach a doctor as early; and the health of the mother may have been be below the average due to poverty in the case of mother and baby homes (better off families could make other arrangements). It would be relevant to know how the funding of the mother and baby homes compared to the funding of maternity hospitals at the time.
Stillbirths in Ireland were not registered until 1995, so a stillborn infant would have neither birth nor death certificate.
The burial of very young infants in the first half of the 20th century in Ireland was not as we do today. They were very often buried in mass graves, like the Holy Angels plot in Glasnevin where over 50,000 infants are buried, and there were no memorials with names. Only in the last 20 years or so has this plot been made more presentable. Poverty was also an important factor in providing a memorial stone on graves. A not uncommon custom was to put the body of a very young infant into the coffin with another burial taking place at the time, with no necessary family connection.
Adoption legislation in Ireland took effect in 1952. We hear stories of adoption of the child of a single mother, where the mother was under such pressure that there was not free consent. This was the case in many other countries as well. Until about the 1980s, adoption was “closed” – no information available which could facilitate later contact between the birth mother and the child. The USA had what is sometimes called the “Baby Scoop Era” (do an internet search).
The question of how to deal with illegitimate births was not just an Irish problem. Social engineering in the form of eugenics was in the fashion in a number of countries. Many European countries, and many states in the USA, had far more draconian measures: compulsory sterilisation of those considered unfit to be parents. In 1927 Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr., Associate Justice of US Supreme Court, approved for the sterilisation of a young woman who had been raped: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Just recently, in May 2014, the California Senate passed Bill 1135 to prevent sterilisation of women prisoners in a coercive prison environment.
There are so many factors to be considered before we can come to a more complete understanding of the matter. Those who dealt with these matters in the past in Ireland faced situations which may be very difficult for us to envisage. The fact that we today may judge that some actions taken were not good does not mean that all those who made those decisions were bad people. We must also keep in mind our present-day situation, where the infant mortality rate for Traveller children is 3.5 times that of the general population, and where our provision for those seeking asylum in Ireland leaves so many in deplorable conditions.