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How mid-century Ireland dealt with unwed mothers and their children, and why we're talking about it today

Sean Ross Abbey, a mother and baby home in Cork.
Sean Ross Abbey, a mother and baby home in Cork.
Brian Lockier / Adoption Rights Alliance
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Researcher Catherine Corless has uncovered records suggesting that the bodies of 796 infants were buried in a septic tank in Tuam, Ireland. The tank — previously believed to have held victims of the Irish famine of the 1840s — was on the property of a "mother and baby home" run by the Bon Secours nuns between 1925 and 1961; while the cause of death is unknown, the unsanitary conditions of the homes was likely a major factor.

The mother and baby homes, along with the Magdalene laundries for "fallen women" and other institutions erected by the Catholic Church in Ireland (often with state participation), have seen renewed scrutiny since the 1990s as abuses committed against the women condemned to live in the institutions have come to light. The mother and baby homes sometimes forced mothers to put their children up for adoption, often to the US, while Magdalene laundries subjected women to forced labor (usually, as the name implies, washing clothes and linens) and physical abuse. One mother and baby home, Sean Ross Abbey, was featured in last year's film Philomena. Last year, the Irish government agreed to compensate survivors of the Magdalene laundries, while those abused in mother and baby homes have yet to be compensated, and children of mothers in the homes say they have been denied access to records.

Mari Steed is the cofounder of the group Justice for Magdalenes and US coordinator for the Adoption Rights Alliance, Ireland. She was one of more than 2,000 children born in Ireland and put up for adoption in the United States without their mothers' consent. We spoke on the phone Wednesday, June 4, about the history of the Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes, what we know about the conditions that led to the tragedy in Tuam, and what reforms still need to be made. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dylan Matthews: For readers unfamiliar with the Magdalene laundries or the mother and baby homes — what were they? How did they get started? What sorts of women were sent to them?

Mari Steed: The Tuam babies and the mother and baby homes were actually different institutions from the Magdalene laundries. I'll start with the Magdalene laundries, since they've been around somewhat longer. They started as Protestant-run organizations in the UK as far back as the 18th century, although the remit at the time was different at the time and less punitive than it would be later on in Ireland. They were to reform prostitutes, try to cure them of venereal diseases, teach them a trade, and get them back out into decent society. That was the original model, as founded in the UK.

Religious orders, the Good Shepherd sisters and others, in Ireland decided to take that model and bring it to Ireland around the end of the 19th century, and began to open these institutions for "fallen women." You could become a fallen woman by having a child out of wedlock, by being pretty and thus at "moral risk," by being raped by family members or stranger, even though they're the victims. There were many routes into the laundry. Many were family placed, if the family thought their daughter had disgraced them in any way shape or form, they could send them to the nuns.

Many of them, we now know and have proven, came through state routes. For example, in my mother's case, she was in an Irish industrial school. She had been born out of wedlock at a time when adoption didn't exist. Your avenues were being boarded out to a family or sent on to an industrial school or orphanage. So she grew up in an industrial school and when girls reach the end of their schooling years, around age 14, it was common for them to be transferred to work in a Magdalene laundry.

DM: What were the conditions like in the Magdalene laundries?

MS: They were very harsh, very punitive. I don't know how familiar you are with the Stanford prison experiment, but we've come to the understanding that that's what happened with a lot of these nuns. They may have started with the best of intentions, but by the very nature of Irish society and repression of women's sexuality, they began to see these women as less than human, and treat them that way. That's where we're seeing a lot of the abuse, and really torture, at the end of the day.

The women were not free to come and go. If they tried to escape, they were dragged back by the police. They weren't allowed to speak to one another, so there was not a lot of discourse, even amongst themselves, though obviously some did. They were given false names to protect their identities. They had their clothes stripped from them. Just harsh, ugly institutions. And at the end of the day they were doing essentially slave labor, because these nuns were taking commercial contracts from everyone from the local hoteliers to the prisons to the clergy, even the Department of Defense contracted their laundry services. And the women were not paid for the work they did.

The laundries actually continued, not as active as in the '30s through '50s, but the last one didn't close until 1996, at Sean MacDermott Street. People like to say, "Well, put it in the context of the times, this happened so long ago." Not really. These women are still living, some of them. There are living women out there who can testify to what that was like, and have testified to it.

DM: How did they relate to the mother and baby homes, which the current revelations concern?

MS: [Boston College professor and activist] James Smith refers to it as Ireland's "architecture of containment," and that's exactly what it was. You had these industrial schools, the Magdalene laundries, the mother and baby homes, all with different remits, but the basic model was to contain and segregate anything that was deemed morally inferior by society, whether that's children, unwed mothers, the women in the Magdalenes, etc. They were all cross connecting at various points. Children were sent to laundries, women came out of laundries or went into laundries from mother and baby homes.

The key differences are that the Magdalene laundries really did operate, in large part, privately, by religious orders. The state didn't have any dealings with them until the mid-1960s when they paid capitation grants for each woman sent to the nuns. Prior to that, it was just nuns doing commercial business, and the women not getting paid for it, but there was no state interaction at that level.

The mother and baby homes were different in that they were regulated by the state and had to be accredited adoption societies, at least by 1952, which is when that became legal in Ireland. They received stipends from the day they opened, from the government. They were receiving the equivalent of an industrial wage at that time for each mother and baby, from the state. If that were the case, why were so many of these women, like my mother or Philomena Lee, expected to earn their keep if the state were in fact funding that? It really doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Obviously there was some profit being made there, not to mention what half of our parents paid. That's another story unto itself. Adoptive parents were "donating" huge amounts of money.

Obviously there's a lot of collaboration between the two, a lot of crossover and intersections, but they were really distinctly separate. When we talk about Magdalene laundries versus mother and baby homes, we have to be careful, especially now because we have an actual redress, such as it is, for the Magdalene women, but as it gets into the media, now what we have are mothers who were forced to give their babies up coming out of the mother and baby home history and thinking they're eligible under the Magdalene thing, which of course they're not. That's the only reason I'm drawing such a distinct line. I don't want anyone to feel they can make a claim. We're not quite there yet, although I think this latest explosion might get us there a bit faster, since it seems to have caused quite a bit of outrage finally.

DM: But the mother and baby homes, though they received money from the state, they were run by the church still, no?

MS: Correct.

DM: How old were the women placed in the mother and baby homes, generally?

MS: There's one girl who has a marker at Sean Ross Abbey, who must have died either giving birth or prior to birth, I'm not sure which, and was buried by the nuns, meaning either she had no family or the family wouldn't take the body back. She's buried on the grounds there and her cross states that she's 14. There were some very young girls there, many of them carrying children of incest, rape, etc. They can go anywhere from 14 up to 40.

For parents of children who were trafficked to the US, we do have a lot of data files we made over the years, and have been able to determine some of the mothers' ages. It's surprising to many people that the vast majority of them were over the age of 21. A lot of people find that shocking because they think of US birth mothers being in their teens and think, "My birth mother was 27, how was she not able to keep me?" But they lacked resources, and certainly the sexual maturity to even understand what had happened to them.

DM: You have data on facilities besides Tuam, and the conditions for children there. Can you talk about what you've found?

MS: We've been very cautious about that because there's so much more research that has to be done. We need to pull more death certificates and see what the causes were. You can pull death registers from the opening date of most of these homes, say from 1930 up to 1955, and the numbers are shocking. The numbers for all three of the Sacred Heart homes, in Cork, Tipperary, and Westmeath, were double or triple the national mortality rate for infants.

There was an excellent book written by Dr. James Deeny in 1989 on this. He had been the chief medical officer for Ireland back in the 1940s, and before that he was a local medical inspector and went into Bessboro [the Sacred Hearts home in Cork] because he had heard stories of staggering numbers of children dying. He went in for an inspection. The nuns thought they were being clever and put nice clean white linens in the babies' cots, but when their backs were turned, he pulled down the covers and discovered there were outbreaks of Streptococcus going around, and masses of children lying around infected. That would explain in certain years like that we're seeing such a high death rate.

Again, these are ailments that any other child in any other situation would be treated for and probably survive with no problem. It raises questions. The nuns felt we were all inferior due to being born out of wedlock, but if the child did suffer from some congenital problem or was sickly and needed help, did they just make no effort to save that child and allow them to die? Starve them, put them on sugar water, and that was the end of it? We are seeing, as we pull death certificates, an overwhelming number of children showing up as dying from acute malnutrition. There's also heart failure, sepsis — many of them very treatable. Given decent medical care, they would have survived.

Looking at the data we have at hand and knowing a bit about the history of us children sent to the US, they were obviously looking for the best and the brightest, and the healthiest, to adopt out, either to the Irish market or abroad. And it did start to get better toward the mid to late 1950s. I think the nuns realized they were in no position to deliver babies, so they started to bring in midwives and county resident doctors and you do start to see the mortality rates drop as you go through the 1950s.

DM: How, if at all, did mothers leave these homes, especially if it was put up for adoption? Did they just continue to work there? Were they transferred to laundries?

MS: A combination. It was £100 to pay your way out. If you had the baby, you were free to leave in six weeks if you were able to pay. If you weren't, the nuns would put you to work. You might be in the laundry facility there at the home, you might be at the farm, my mother did sewing, etc. There were a number of things the nuns could have you do to earn your keep. We've found women who worked there for as long as five years for the nuns. If their families wouldn't take them, if they had nowhere to go, then yes, very often they would be sent on to a Magdalene laundry.

DM: What about the children, if they weren't adopted? Would they live their whole lives in an institution like that?

MS: No, they were sent on to either orphanages or industrial schools fairly quickly, if they weren't adopted out. We do know of children as old as five coming to the US, so if they did find a parent (or "buyer") who wasn't averse to taking a child as old as five, then they did get sent to the US, if not to a family in Ireland.

DM: So all told, how many people, either in your position or as mothers, were cycled through either the mother and baby homes or the laundries, or associated institutions?

MS: On the mother and baby side, we know there are 60,000 adopted adults in Ireland, UK, or the US. That's the figure we put for those who were formally adopted since the 1952 adoption act. On top of that, there might be 5,000 to 10,000 de facto adoptees, who were fostered out. Industrial schools housed something like 10,000 children. The Magdalene laundries we're always loath to put a number on, because so many records were destroyed, but it was estimated to be as high as 30,000.

DM: Speaking as a child of this system, what can be done at this point for both children who were taken from their mothers and surviving mothers?

MS: We've been plugging at this in Ireland and the US for 20 years, and there are adopted people who are still subjected to discrimination and forbidden from seeing their own records. You have a whole class of citizens who are considered second class by virtue of the status of their birth. Ireland does not have open birth records, as the UK does. There are only four states in the US with true open records and maybe another three with conditional access. That's atrocious. You have a generation or more of people who don't have access to information about themselves: medical, historical, their identity and so forth. In Ireland, we've been calling for legislation and reforms, but it's been ignored so many times. We have to keep fighting for the living as well as the dead. We need to give voice to those of us who didn't make it out of the homes, but remember the living as well.