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'The nuns sent me away with your child in a wheelbarrow': Powerful speeches in debate on mother and baby homes

Senators are debating legislation related to records compiled by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

Senator Victor Boyhan speaking in the Seanad today.
Senator Victor Boyhan speaking in the Seanad today.
Image: Oireachtas.ie

Updated Oct 16th 2020, 5:29 PM

PERSONAL STORIES OF people who lived in mother and baby homes have been read out in the Seanad during a debate on proposed legislation related to records of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

Senator Victor Boyhan was among those to speak on the topic this afternoon, sharing powerful personal stories.

Boyhan, who grew up in an orphanage in Dún Laoghaire in Dublin, said many people over the years have told him their stories of life in mother and baby homes and similar institutions.

Boyhan shared a number of people’s stories including that of a neighbour who at the age of 80 told him about her baby son dying in an institution in Salthill in Co Galway decades beforehand.

She said she was not allowed to hold her baby and found out from a gardener that the nuns had planned to incinerate his body.

Recalling what the woman told him, Boyhan said the gardener told the woman: “Don’t worry, I tried to give your child a good burial. The nuns sent me away with your child in a wheelbarrow. And rather than incinerate it … I buried it beneath the compost heap.”

Boyhan said the woman told him about the incident when she was 80 and had started to lose her memory. Her daughters never knew what happened.

“Her son, her only son, who she was denied to take in her hands and hold for a few minutes, was given to a gardener to be put in a wheelbarrow to be brought to be burned, but that gardener came forward through one of the nuns and told the story.”

Boyhan was making the point that some people who worked in mother and baby homes and other institutions tried to speak out at the injustices they saw.

He called on those present to remember they were “talking about people, and many of them are outside the gates here today, and thousands of them have written to us, they want to be believed, and they want to be supported”.

“So much happened these people, they were entrusted to the care of the State or to the Church or to a charity or whatever. Many of them were taken away from the families.”

Families torn apart

Boyhan said the issue didn’t just affect young single mothers, noting that some mothers and fathers who were married “had their children wrenched away from them, and were not supported”. 

“There were mothers and fathers and children that were split, because of other [family members'] interest in money, and inheritance and land. And all the historic things that go with our obsession with owning, our obsession with property and inheritance. 

“It’s too simplistic to say it’s a boy or a girl, it’s a family. It’s not. There are many, many families.”

Boyhan said many families were later “robbed by this State, by establishments in this State of that opportunity of reunification”.

Speaking of plans to seal the commission’s records for 30 years, Boyhan said many survivors may not be alive by then.

“In 30 years, I’ll be nearly 90, I won’t be around,” Boyhan said, adding “loads of others are gone”. Of the survivors who are still alive, he said many of these people’s “spirits are broken”.

Addressing Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman, Boyhan said: “The reality is for many people, they see you, as a minister, locking up all that documentation for 30 years.

“They see you and your Bill blocking access to information in relation to certain information and the evidence and documentation which has been collected by the Commission of Investigation into the deaths of children, of mothers, of people that had the terrible, terrible experiences.”

O’Gorman has denied the commission’s records will be put “beyond reach”.

Boyhan also spoke in favour of an amendment by Michael McDowell that ensures testimonies to the commission will remain confidential.

Boyhan said the government will be faced with “endless litigation” if the legislation is passed. O’Gorman said he has consulted the Attorney General throughout this process.

McDowell earlier said people were given “a cast-iron commitment” by the commission that they would not be identified publicly. He said people shared deeply personal stories with the commission after being told they would never be identified, but the new Bill would allow them to be identified in 30 years.

However, a number of other senators such as Lynn Ruane and Alice-Mary Higgins said many people who gave evidence wanted public hearings to be held and for their stories to be public, but were not afforded this option.

Several academics, campaigners and politicians have called for the government to prevent the records being sealed, once the wishes of those who wish to remain anonymous are respected.

The National Women’s Council today raised serious concerns in relation to the Bill and the way it is “being rushed through the Oireachtas”.

Director Orla O’Connor said the NWC is “very concerned about the Mother and Baby Home Records Bill and the way it is currently being rushed through the Oireachtas”.

“This State has failed so many women and children in this country who suffered immeasurable institutional abuse and trauma.

“It is our responsibility now – as a minimum – to address the serious concerns the survivors and the families of survivors are raising and ensure that their rights to information and access to their identity are being respected.”

Lynn Boylan said she and others have spoken to survivors and many of them are happy for the publication of the commiision’s report to be delayed by 28 days if it means their concerns, such as their right to information and records, are addressed.

Sealed for 30 years

Senators expressed “serious concerns” over the proposed legislation in debates in the upper house today and on Wednesday.

Last week the government approved the text of the Bill which it said will safeguard the records after the dissolution of the commission.

A number of senators called for more time to examine the draft legislation, saying it is being “rammed through”.

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.

Under the 2004 Commissions of Investigation Act once it submits its final report, 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.

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

Several people have raised concerns about the records being sealed, and have called for clarity on what evidence will be handed over to Tusla.

O’Gorman this week said he understands concern around the issue “given Ireland’s history”. He said the new legislation is “needed to preserve access to invaluable information now and into the future, and not to put it beyond reach as has been reported”.

O’Gorman said the entire premise of the 2004 Act “is that investigations are held in private” – however, this has been disputed by academics.

“That confidentiality applies to the evidence and records gathered by the inquiry. It is central to allow testimony be given freely,” O’Gorman stated.

The minister said the Bill being brought forward will preserve this information and allows the database to be transferred to Tusla, “with whom most of the original records are already held”.

O’Gorman said the new legislation will prevent the information “from effectively being destroyed” and will allow access to it under existing laws.

“The draft Bill is focused on protecting a valuable resource which will assist in accessing personal information under existing law and be hugely beneficial in any future information and tracing legislation…

“I am absolutely committed to addressing the long-running matter of birth information tracing legislation. This is not what this Bill is going to address, but I’m absolutely committed to doing so.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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