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Exporting the Poor

Sean Byrne writes: Given that one of the commissioners on mother and baby homes, Professor Mary Daly, is a very distinguished historian, it is perhaps surprising that the consigning of so many single mothers to these institutions has not been linked to Ireland’s economic underdevelopment from independence through to the 1960s. The report points out that mother and baby homes were not unique to Ireland and also that there were few such homes prior to independence. Yet by the 1940s, Ireland had the highest number of women in such homes in the world.

Before the Famine, Ireland had one of the highest rates and lowest ages of marriage in Europe. By the 1950s the rate of marriage in Ireland was the lowest and the age the highest in Europe. The pre-Famine pattern of subdivision of farms among sons was replaced by ruthless primogeniture, with all children other than the inheriting son under pressure to leave the farm or face a life of unpaid labour as a “relative assisting”. The inheriting sons often had to wait until they were middle-aged to inherit and be able to marry. A daughter who became pregnant would not be marriageable and would damage the marriage prospects of sisters.

The Commission argues that the primary responsibility for the fate of single mothers lay with the fathers of their children. But few of those fathers could have supported their children even if they were willing to do so. Some fled to Britain on discovering they had made a girl pregnant, but many of these would eventually have emigrated in search of work anyway. Given the level of enforced celibacy that Ireland’s economic underdevelopment engendered, it is not surprising that there were many extramarital pregnancies. Yet, as the report points out, the rate of extramarital pregnancies in Ireland was low compared with other European countries but the consequences for pregnant women were the worst.

Living standards fell significantly between 1922 and 1932 and emigration continued on a scale unprecedented in Europe. The population of the Republic of Ireland continued to fall until the 1960s, with the country losing 15 per cent of its population in the 1950s.

Having failed to develop industry until the 1960s, Ireland created instead a set of institutions which became major sources of employment. In 1926 there were more children in industrial schools in Ireland than in the whole of England and Wales, By the 1950s, the country had the highest proportion of its population in Europe in institutions including religious communities, mental hospitals, industrial schools, Magdalen laundries and mother and baby homes. These institutions, not industries, became the main employers in many Irish towns.

The only institutions in which Ireland had relatively small numbers were prisons, because many of the young men most likely to commit crimes emigrated and the district courts, until the 1970s, often gave those who committed petty crimes the option of a prison sentence or going to Britain. This resulted in the Irish being overrepresented in British prisons relative to their numbers in the population. But the Irish imprisoned in Britain were consoled by the surplus Irish priests and nuns despatched to minister to them and to other emigrants. The importance of institutions as employers in small towns was shown when a hospital in Castlerea closed in 1994. In response to the outcry at the loss of jobs, the government decided to locate a prison on the hospital site.

The extraordinary numbers of young Irish people becoming priests, brothers and nuns from the 1920s to the 1950s was an indicator of the lack of other job opportunities. That religious life was for many merely a job was starkly revealed by the drying up of “vocations” and the exodus from the priesthood and from convents from the 1970s, when other jobs became available. The lack of compassion of some of the nuns in the mother and baby homes may have been an expression of their frustration at being trapped in an occupation in which they were unhappy. Similar frustrations may explain some of the physical and sexual violence of many priests and brothers towards the pupils in the schools they operated. Many young women were steered into religious orders by parents who knew they were unlikely to find employment, or husbands, in a stagnant economy. The religious orders mirrored the class system of an underdeveloped country, with poor girls and boys who could not bring in money consigned to a life of domestic servitude as “lay” sisters and brothers. 

Within a decade of the establishment of the Irish Free State, it was clear that independence had not brought prosperity. The leader of the Irish Free State for its first ten years, WT Cosgrave, when minister for local government in the underground Dáil in 1921 wrote in a memo that “people reared in workhouses are no great acquisition to society” and argued that “it would be a decided advantage if they all took it into their heads to emigrate”. The attitude of Cosgrave’s government towards the least fortunate of the new state’s citizens was articulated by minister for industry and commerce, Patrick McGilligan, when he stated in 1924 that, while Irish people “may have to die … of starvation” the state had no responsibility to keep them alive.

Irish nationalists often remind us that Ireland was the first country to break free of the British empire. Having achieved this freedom, the “Republican” leaders abased themselves before the empire of the bishop of Rome. On becoming taoiseach in 1948, Fine Gael leader John A Costello wrote to the pope “to repose at the feet of Your Holiness the assurance of our filial loyalty and devotion”. The letter was drafted by the former leader of the IRA, Sean MacBride, who was minister for external affairs. MacBride later wrote to the Catholic archbishop of Armagh expressing eagerness to take church direction on government policy. Instead of creating a prosperous economy and a humane society, the new state bound its future to the Catholic church, which proved more adept than Britain at oppressing Irish people. Ireland became a Republic of Shame, as Caelainn Hogan entitles her searing account of the mother and baby homes and Magdalen laundries.

17/3/2021