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'When your mother cried during labour, she was paying for her sins': Stories of mother and baby home survivors read into Dáil record

Powerful testimonies of survivors from mother and baby homes were read out in the Dáil last night.

File photo of flowers and tributes at the unmarked mass grave containing the remains of nearly 800 infants who died at the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway, from 1925-1961.
File photo of flowers and tributes at the unmarked mass grave containing the remains of nearly 800 infants who died at the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway, from 1925-1961.
Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

POWERFUL TESTIMONIES OF those who lived in mother and baby homes were read into the Dáil record yesterday. 

TDs last night debated controversial plans to seal records by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Home for 30 years.

Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on children Kathleen Funchion said “innocent women were subjected to cruel practices” in the institutions, “imprisoned and forced to give birth in the most appalling conditions, often without medical support or even basic pain relief”.

“One survivor vividly recalled that no doctor was present when she gave birth, only nuns, and there was no formal medical care or any kind of pain relief.

“Another woman retold the story of her birth and said when her mother cried out in pain during labour, she was told by one of these nuns that she should not be surprised as my mother was paying for her sins.”

Funchion said a part of her “cannot believe that in 2020 we are here discussing the rights and wrongs of what should happen to records and whether records should be sealed”.

Funchion and other TDs noted how some survivors were deliberately given inaccurate or misleading information about their past. Many people were incorrectly told their mothers had died when this was not the case.

“Child survivors tell story after story of hitting brick walls, many tragically missing the opportunity to reunite with their mothers before they passed away,” Funchion said.

Sinn Féin TD Rose Conway Walsh shared similar stories and became visibly upset while addressing the Dáil.

Telling one woman’s story of being reunited with her mother shortly before she died, Conway Walsh said: “I walked into the room and kissed her forehead and I told her who I was.

And she replied ‘I knew you would find me some day’. My mother passed away less than a month later.

“That women probably hung on until her child found her,” Funchion noted.

Conway Walsh told Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman: “We have a chance here to do the right thing. We cannot tell all of these women and all these families that they are wrong” for objecting to the legislation.

“Please, please, I’m begging you. Don’t go ahead with this legislation.”

Re-examination of process

TDs and senators have expressed serious concerns in debates on the proposed legislation in the last two weeks, saying it is being rushed through without proper scrutiny.

Survivors, academics and legal experts have also expressed concern about plans to seal the records for 30 years.

Under the 2004 Commissions of Investigation Act once it submits its final report – which is due to happen at the end of this month – the commission will be dissolved and, prior to its dissolution, it must deposit all records with the minister to be sealed for a period of 30 years.

The proposed legislation will see the transfer of certain records from O’Gorman to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.

Speaking in the Dáil last night, O’Gorman said “although much of the debate has conflated the genuine aims of this Bill with the pre-existing legal requirements in place in respect of the sealing of the commission’s records for 30 years, it is impossible to ignore the volume of correspondence I have received expressing very legitimate and grave concerns that some important commission records – essential validating personal information for survivors – would be put beyond reach for 30 years”.

O’Gorman noted that people’s concerns are “centred on how the 30-year archiving of records, as required of the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes, impacts the legitimate expectations of survivors and relatives to access important personal information related to the circumstances of their time in these institutions”.

This assertion has been disputed by legal experts, with Dr Maeve O’Rourke of the Clann Project stating: “Neither the Commission nor the Government is permitted under the GDPR to place a blanket seal over the entire archive it holds”.

O’Gorman last night said it is clear that “a re-examination of the current approach on how access is provided to the archives of the commission for certain validating personal information for survivors is needed”.

“In so doing, it is my view that there exists an obligation to survivors and their relatives that goes beyond purely legal questions.”

To begin this process, O’Gorman committed to two actions.

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“First, I have requested – this has been agreed – a detailed engagement with the Attorney General’s Office on the issue of personal data access in the commission’s archives, which is so vitally important to so many former residents.

“Second, I intend to request the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration to lead on this re-examination in a format that would allow for survivors and their representatives, expert legal opinion and other leading academics to explore thoroughly the major principles underlying the debate on access to personal information in the commission’s archive and to make a set of recommendations aiming to resolve the very real difficulties which the passage of this legislation has highlighted.

“As part of this, I am committed to working closely with the committee towards finding a way forward.”

The commission was established in 2015 to inquire into the treatment of women and children in 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes between 1922 and 1998.

It was set up following claims that up to 800 babies were interred in an unmarked mass grave at a former Bon Secours home in Tuam, Co Galway.

Excavations carried out between November 2016 and February 2017 found a significant quantity of human remains, aged from 35 foetal weeks to two to three years, interred in a vault on the site.

The commission is due to submit its final report to O’Gorman by 30 October, following previous delays. Its work has cost about €14 million to date.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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