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Dublin: 21°C Tuesday 9 August 2022

Aaron McKenna: The nation, not just the Church, bears responsibility for horrors of the past

For Irish people who lived through these times to claim no knowledge of what went on in places like Tuam is disingenuous – and smacks of “I was only following orders”.

Aaron McKenna

THE LITANY OF horrors inflicted on people in this country since independence up to the not so distant past, from so-called bastards to the fallen women who bore them, the disabled and the mentally weak, is horrifying. We tend to let these stories, like that of the Tuam babies, drip out one by one. But when you stand back and consider all of the cruelties taken together it is difficult to imagine that they do not form a semi-coherent policy of expunging those who were deemed unworthy to live among us.

Before independence we could blame our troubles on the British. The famine is our great national tragedy, and it is characters like Trevelyan who take the blame for their part in allowing millions to starve or flee. Looking at how Ireland fared after independence, and our great proclamation in 1916 promising to ‘cherish all the children of the nation equally,’ one wonders if an Irish managed famine wouldn’t have featured workhouses and the like all the same.

After independence the borders of the new Irish state became the demarcation line of an intolerant and cruel place. Mother and baby homes. Industrial schools. Magdalene laundries. These are sanitised names for non-judicial prisons. People were sent there and kept there with little or no legal basis, and what did exist was flimsy and inhumane. People who escaped were often dragged back by the Gardai. Some of these places were work camps, and others were informal death camps.

Blaming the Church instead of the British

Since independence we have had the Catholic church to blame instead of the British. Most of these institutions were run by the religious, after all. But to blame 60 or 70 or more years of barbarism on the Church is an easy get-out.

One of the things that struck me about the Tuam babies case is that the septic tank was first discovered in the early 1970s. There is a memorial standing there for all those buried today. Many former mother and baby homes are the sites of ‘angel graveyards’ that are regularly attended by relatives each year.

Stories are ‘emerging’ in light of the international outcry about mass vaccination trials conducted on children in homes; or of extremely high death rates among babies at certain homes; or of midwives’ tales of horror at the goings on in them.

Yet, none of these things are ‘emerging’. They have been well known. The former Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Health shut down Bessborough home in the 1950s after he noticed that 100 of 180 babies born in a two-year period had died. After investigating, he found that the nuns running the place were covering up horrendous health issues among the babies born there. He had to combat opposition from Church authorities at the time.

To blame official Ireland alone is too simplistic

Official Ireland knew that these were the conditions into which these children were entering the world. As for the story ‘emerging’, Dr James Deeny wrote about it in his memoir. In 1989.

Yet, to blame official Ireland – politicians, civil servants and the like – alongside the Church is also too simplistic.

It is disingenuous in the extreme for Irish people who lived through these times to claim no knowledge of what went on. It is to pretend to abandon all free will to suggest that even if many people knew, they had no sway over the all-powerful Church authorities. To claim simply that these were ‘different times’ has echoes of ‘I was only following orders.’ Men were hanged after unsuccessfully relying on that defence elsewhere during the 20th century.

It is extremely difficult to compare atrocities. What went on in Ireland, while it lasted a very long time, was well sanitised and was certainly not on a par with some of what we saw go on in Europe during the 20th century. But to compare atrocities is also to sometimes cheapen the victims of one in favour of another. Each life is precious.

What we can say about what went on in Ireland for much of the 20th century is this: we moved many thousands of people into a proxy prison system. Many of them were engaged in forced labour. Some of them escaped, and were returned to the prison system by the state police. The death rate among children in this system was magnitudes higher than among the general population. Many of those who died were buried in mass graves if not incinerated. One of these mass graves is probably a tank that was previously used to store human excrement.

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We are incapable of addressing our crimes against humanity

What we can also say, not just for generations past, is that we have been highly reluctant to address these issues as they have come to light. Much of the publicity surrounding the Tuam baby’s case caught on abroad, not at home. The notion of up to 800 toddlers buried in a mass grave inside a septic tank prompts horror in most. In Ireland, when it happened in Ireland, it prompts much horror for sure. But it also prompts discussion, debate, hand-wringing and thinking.

We are not, as a nation, capable of standing up and addressing the great crimes against humanity that went on in this country, by Irish people to Irish people (clergy or not). Not quickly, and not effectively. This is another crime perpetrated against the victims of our prison camp system.

At this point, I would suggest that we should hand over investigations into all of the crimes against humanity of the 20th century in Ireland to foreigners. Let impartial people come in and investigate each mass grave, each former home, the stories of victims and the defences, such as they may be, of officials and clerics and everyone else.

Let’s dig up the bones of those abandoned in septic tanks and God knows where else, and examine them and see how they died. Let us not be afraid to cast light onto these places. Otherwise we, in this generation, will be perpetuating crimes of the past by our willingness to let them slip past without examination, even if the time for punishment is slipping by.

Every home. Every graveyard. Every record. Every living, breathing human being accounted for and remembered for what they were: innocent people, their lives shattered or ended because we were too malicious or too meek as a people, whichever you prefer, to save them.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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