The report from the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has been published.

Three thousand pages which report a time in our history when some women were treated in the most appalling fashion by Church, State, society and consequently their own families.

At least now there is some sort of record about a society that didn’t acknowledge sexuality, keeping young people in ignorance about how babies were conceived.

Why then was I not aware of mother and baby homes until well after the closure of them?

It sounds incredible in today’s world of technology and information but it is true. It was best not to talk about these things. Abstinence was the only way.

I have lived through 39 of the 76 years that the report covers. Why then was I not aware of mother and baby homes until well after the closure of them? Girls were driven to keep their pregnancy secret through fear of damnation.

Many women have remained silent, carrying the anguish of losing their little boy or girl to the grave. They were scarred irreparably from guarding a secret buried so deep as to be difficult to retrieve, let alone talk about it. Consequently, their peers often remained ignorant of their distress. I certainly did.

Remembering that time

Since the report came out I have spoken to a number of my friends to try to revisit that time. All of us know of someone who had a baby out of wedlock. That hideous description slipped into our conversations. Yet, it was the language then and while I wish I never knew it; it came easily off our tongues. Recently, I was trying to explain to my adult children what it was like and I said some babies were born “out of wedlock”. Horrified, my daughter Julie and son Colm pulled me up short. “Mum! What did you say?”

This report is cruel for the women involved

No more than they cannot comprehend what it was like for me growing up can I possibly understand what it was like for women in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s. That is why we must remember and most of all; we need to listen.

This report is cruel for the women involved. Yet, it may offer a prompt for someone to tell her own story. Only by speaking out and allowing us to hear your story can we better understand the huge injustices done to oftentimes very young girls and to their little babies.

We would be damaged goods and no man would want us

I went to a boarding school run by nuns and some doubled as my teachers. It was made abundantly clear that our lives would be over should we have a baby without being married. If the worst happened, then our prospects of marriage or a job were finished. We would be damaged goods and no man would want us. It was also well known that there would be no welcome in the family home if fate were to be so cruel.

Not only were the girl’s prospects ruined; so too was the reputation of the family. Back then reputation was everything. So, “expecting” was a problem that had to be dealt with alone. Personal consequences be damned.

There was no guidance and certainly no counselling

Unmarried mothers were “other” in the true definition of other; to be avoided at all costs. If you befriended them, the same might happen to you. Among my friends, there is a shared memory about girls disappearing suddenly and never returning. Yet, we never questioned what happened to them.

Back then, you didn’t challenge authority. It was the way things were. There was no guidance and certainly no counselling. One avenue only; adoption. That of course, did not make it right or acceptable. Some families disowned their own daughters and sisters, causing catastrophic suffering that has lasted lifetimes. Other girls were offered the opportunity to rear the baby in the family home. That took courage and strength in a hostile environment and I salute those families.

Today’s shame

Hopefully appropriate redress will happen. There is need for more research and access to information bringing closure for the women and their babies.

Move on another 40 years and what will be the issues of shame from this decade we live in. I forecast that it will be that over 2,000 people with intellectual disabilities are still living in institutional settings in 2021. Yet our Government’s policy is to move people in residential services into their own communities where they can live a life of their choosing with the necessary supports. The pace of change is too slow. In the future, our children’s children will say: “Shame on us.”