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'Painfully visible shortcomings': Catriona Crowe on the problems with the Mother and Baby Home Commission

Catriona Crowe examines the Commission’s report, details its shortcomings and issues, and explains what needs to happen next.

Catriona Crowe

Catriona Crowe is the former head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland and one of Ireland’s most prominent social and cultural commentators. In this article, originally written for and published in the Dublin Review, and republished here with permission, she looks at the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. Crowe examines the Commission’s report, and what it tells us about how the Commission treated the testimony from the women who spoke to it. She breaks down the questions and issues arising from the report of the Commission, and details what needs to happen next. 

CAROLINE O’CONNOR became pregnant in 1980, at the age of seventeen. Thirty-eight years later, on 25 October 2018, she gave testimony to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

As part of the work of the commission, established by the state in 2015 following shocking revelations about mortality and burial practices at the mother and baby home in Tuam, two bodies were established to receive testimony from survivors of the institutions: a Confidential Committee, without judicial powers, which heard oral testimony from 550 survivors of the institutions, and an Investigation Committee, with judicial powers, which took testimony from sixty-four survivors along with a range of other witnesses.

Caroline O’Connor did two things that, we may assume, most of the other 549 who spoke to the Confidential Committee did not do. The first of these was to prepare a detailed written submission for the commission. I am reproducing it here, with her permission, verbatim and in its entirety, omitting only certain names:

‘This submission relates to 3 generations of my family. My Grandmother, Winifred Curtin, from Ennistymon, gave birth to my Mother, Mary, in the Kilrush County Home in County Clare on the 27th February 1928 (copy of birth cert in file attached). I do not know where my Mother resided until the age of 10, but from then on I have been told by my “Aunt” that she was boarded out to a farming family, the [name omitted] in Crusheen, County Clare. At the age of 15/16 my Mother became pregnant by a farm hand, [name omitted]. She was sent to Cork/Limerick Magdalene Laundry. Noted in an email from my “cousin” dated 19-8-2008 (she wrote to me responding to my queries through her, to my Aunt) that when she went to visit her she found my Mother on her hands and knees, 8 months pregnant, cleaning the floor with a toothbrush. My Mother was “wailing and pleading not to be left there”. My mother had a baby girl. I have no idea what happened to her baby. I am estimating this to be around 1944/45.

‘I grew up an only child. My Father died when I was 15 years old. I became pregnant in 1980, when I was 17. I concealed this pregnancy for 5 months. Eventually my Mother discovered late on a Saturday night, and was extremely upset, actually hysterical. On Sunday morning she dragged me up to the back of Westland Row church sacristy. The head priest of the parish had just come off the altar having said mass. My Mother was extremely upset, crying, saying “look what she has done to me Father?”. I was boiling with anger. He told her to go see Fr. [name omitted], another parish priest. We went to see him and he phoned around and it would be very difficult to find me a place to go. That he could find me a place in a home on the Naas Road, but it was very rough. He would try really hard to get me a nicer place, which he later said he did, and I got the impression I should be very grateful. I did not know what was really going on. John, my boyfriend, and I planned to get a flat and have our baby. We were very naive 17-year-olds. Fr. [name omitted] and my Mother told me adoption was the only solution. I had no idea of what a Mother and Baby home was, and I did not know where they were planning on sending me. I was so upset. John was at a loss as to what to do. He could not stand up to my Mother. Fr. [name omitted] organized everything and by Wednesday I was brought to Ard Mhuire, Dunboyne, Co. Meath. This was November 1980. I was disappeared from school – I was in Leaving Cert year – and from my neighbourhood and from my friends.

‘After a while I was happy to be away from my Mother. Her erratic behaviour was exhausting. She had been taking anti-depressants for years at this stage, and was already unstable. But I missed my friends and John very much.

‘I was visited by Fr [name omitted] one evening. There was a visiting room in the Home. I was upset. He asked me to come over to him and sit on his knee. He was consoling me and tried to kiss me on the lips. I was shocked and confused. I did not allow him to kiss me. I pulled away and the visit soon ended. I didn’t see him again. I was now very visibly pregnant.

‘Another weird experience with a priest happened when the priest who used to say mass in the home every week was there doing confessions. It was in the large front room of the home. There was just a simple screen between 2 seats, him on one side of the screen, me on the other. He could easily see me and I him. I started my confession. But he interrupted me and wanted to know the details of how I got pregnant. He pushed me for intimate details. I didn’t give him any. I made up some rubbish confession and got out of that room. We had to go to mass, but I never went to confession again.

‘The Nuns who ran the home were fine. They were not mean or nasty. We had good, boring food, cooked by staff and assisted by pregnant residents. There were a lot of women and girls there. I became friends with some my own age and some a little older. We had some educational lessons relating to our exams. I did English, maths and history as far as I can remember.

‘We also had to do work for the home. We put greeting cards into cellophane envelopes for about 2 or 3 hours in the morning and had cleaning duties.

‘There was a certain absurdity in placing me in this home and the effort that was made to conceal my pregnancy, as I had to go to Holles St. Maternity Hospital for my prenatal exams. This is where I was born, where my father was born, where a lot of people from my neighbourhood worked. The hospital was 10 minutes’ walk from my house. I passed this hospital every day going to primary school.

‘A group of us girls and women would be brought from Ard Mhuire to Holles St. Hospital in a van taxi. We would be brought in through the side gate, disembark and enter the hospital through a side door. All very secretive. It was obvious from our awful polyester dresses and coats who we were and where we came from. Well, it felt obvious to me. I was hoping not to be recognized by any of the hospital staff.

‘I went into labour on the 1st of March 1981. I said nothing about my contractions for hours. Eventually one of the girls told the Head Nun and she examined me. I was 5cm dilated. I had no idea what that meant. I was told to get my things together, a taxi was called and I journeyed to Holles St. in labour alone. ALONE, at 17 years of age! I had to get out of the taxi, walk up the front steps and approach the reception desk. They were expecting me. I was brought to a cubicle. I was given a gown. I was brought to a room where there were 2 nurses. I had to remove my underwear. I was asked to get up on a trolley. My pubic hair was shaved and a suppository was inserted. I had to rush to the bathroom. I had no idea any of this was going to happen. Nobody told me what to expect. I was absolutely mortified and ashamed. I was brought to a small ward or place near the delivery ward. I could hear women screaming as they were giving birth. I was terrified. All this time I was having contractions and was in agony. I was given an epidural. Again, I did not know what this was. I was told it would help with the pain, but I had no idea if there were any physical consequences. I was given an episiotomy. After I gave birth to my baby, I was stitched. I heard the male nurse say to the female nurse, “well she will be tighter now than she was before”. I did not really understand what this implied, but they sniggered together and I was embarrassed.

‘I think the time was about 2 a.m. or thereabouts. I was put in a wheelchair. A nurse put my baby boy in my arms and we were wheeled to a bed. While being wheeled down the corridor, the cold air must have affected his eyes because he opened them and we seemed to lock eyes. I felt the most sensational, overwhelming rush of absolute love for my child. It was amazing. I had never felt anything like that before, and have never felt it since.

‘I got to have my baby beside me for a while. He was gorgeous. I loved looking at him, smelling him and holding him when I was allowed. I got to change him in the baby ward. He peed on me, it was hilarious. I was excited, and terrified. I did not want to give him up for adoption. I had no idea what to do. I was also in a lot of pain.

‘The following day I was having a salt bath to help with the healing. When I came out of the bathroom a Social Worker was waiting for me. She brought me to a closet off the corridor, to sign some papers. I had no idea what I was signing. I was still disorientated and in pain.

‘I only got to keep my baby for 2 days. He had a small hernia and had to be taken to Temple Street hospital. I was distraught. I was inconsolable. Arrangements were made for him to be christened in the hospital chapel. The other parish priest, Fr. [name omitted] came. My Mother was there. She was all show for the priest. She took my baby from my arms to hold him during the ceremony. I named him Damien Michael O’Connor. Damien after John’s Grandfather, and Michael after my own Father. We went back to the small ward I was sharing with my friend from the Home. A lovely 16-year-old girl from Limerick, whose family were allowing her to keep her baby. I wrapped Damien in the blanket I had crocheted for him in the months previous, 4 colours, pink, blue, yellow and white. The nurse took him from me. I was desperately crying. Part of me died that day. And definitely, part of my relationship with my Mother died. She wanted me back. I never came back to her emotionally. Our bond was broken. I became a very sad empty shell of a girl.

‘After a couple of more days in the hospital, I went back to the Ard Mhuire Home for a week or two, I can’t quite remember. I went back to school at the end of April. I had to keep up the charade that I had TB in school and was on a computer course in [the] UK around the neighbourhood. I was a raging ball of anger. I had no support, no help, no counselling. My Mother would not let me grieve. “Get that face off you” was her regular instruction. I did my leaving cert, which I got, just about.

‘The order who organised the adoption were St. Brigid’s, 68 Iona Road, Glasnevin, Dublin 9. I dealt with a Sr. [name omitted], and a social worker named [omitted], and the secretary [omitted]. If you read the letters (attached) it says in one dated 2nd April 1981, that Damien had been placed for adoption after being held by the order until 27th March, after his final medical check-up. That the adopting “father is a teacher and mother has a sister a nun whom Sr. [omitted] knows very well”. I received 2 photos taken on the same day in a letter dated 24th April 1981. In the photos Damien is lying on the blanket I made for him. I wrote often enquiring about Damien and looked for more photographs. In a letter dated 24th Sept. 1981 I received a picture of Damien aged 6 months. In a letter dated 16-8-1983 I was informed a baby girl had been placed with the family, so Damien had a sister. This is strange because Damien or [name omitted], his present name, had another baby boy, [name omitted], placed with the family. On the 23-8-1983 I received a response to another of my letters, where I had obviously expressed disappointment at not getting any more photos. On the 12-12-1983 I received the last letter, with no photo. I did not write again. My Mother died the month previous, on the 14-11-1983. I was now 20 years of age.

‘I never forgot my son. I learned to live with the pain. Sometime around 1994/5 I registered on the Adoption Register in case Damien ever came looking for me. I used to check it every few months.

‘In 2004 I started a Birth Mother Course with Barnardo’s. I travelled from Dingle every week for 6 weeks. It was a fantastic experience to sit in a room and hear other women’s stories. Christine Hennessey and Patricia White were the Social Workers who ran the course. They were a great help to me. I decided I would be more proactive and write to the agency to have them inform Damien where I was, in case he was ever looking for me. Copy of my letter dated 10th March 2004 in my file. I received a letter written by [my son] sent through Sr. [name omitted] of St. Brigid’s Adoption Society, dated 18th May 2004. I don’t know what happened between 2004 and 2008, but I thought Sr. [name omitted] was going to meet [my son] over the summer, and from that meeting we might start communicating. Nothing happened.

‘I waited until 2008 and contacted Christine Hennessey again. I contacted St. Brigid’s who asked to meet me in their convent in the Coombe. It took all my strength to walk through that convent door. A nun met me and brought me to a room, for a kind of interview. Enquiring as to what kind of life I had and then proceeded to tell me how grateful I should be that my child was placed with such a good family. It took all my strength not to throttle her. I kept counting to ten, as I needed her “approval” so I might meet my son again. I saw a bit of the file and knew he was in [place name omitted] County Clare. After that, I asked Christine Hennessey from Barnardo’s to act as an intermediary between St. Brigid’s, [my son] and myself. I did not trust the nuns to proceed with my desire for communication with my Son. Between June and July 2008 Christine communicated with St. Brigid’s and I finally got to write to my Son in August 2008 directly (through Barnardo’s). And I received a reply from him in November 2008. We wrote to each other for a while through Barnardo’s, then directly in 2010 and we finally met face to face on 28th July 2012. [My son] was then 31 and I was 49 years of age.

‘I believe my own Mother’s early life experience and incarceration in a Magdalene laundry, the adoption of her baby, permanently scarred my Mother. She suffered from manic depression and after 5 or 6 attempts between the years 1979­–1983, she eventually killed herself with an overdose of pills. It was years after my Mother’s death that I discovered she had been placed in a Magdalene Laundry and lost her baby. I was desperately sad when I found out, but it helped me understand why she acted with me the way she did. I forgave her when I came to terms with our experiences, through my own work with 2 different psychotherapists over a number of years.

‘The 3 forced adoptions mentioned in my testimony are an emotional scar on me and in my family. The adoption of my Son overshadowed my life for most of it to date. My Mother was instrumental in having my Son placed for adoption, but she could not have done that without the express help of the Catholic Church and its organisations all mentioned above. Trained social workers were working with these organisations, and facilitating my Son’s adoption. Completely ignoring the other child, me, being emotionally abused by the whole situation. The only help offered was prayers!

‘For my Grandmother, my Mother and myself, I want to make this statement as a record of what the Irish State facilitated and the Catholic Church organised by taking our babies. Three generations of Irish women abused in the most vile manner. A legacy of deep emotional pain passed down for decades.’

2. The Confidential Committee

Mother and Baby Commission 004 The office of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation.

When Caroline O’Connor attended her appointment with the commission’s Confidential Committee, she was met by two women: members of the committee staff. She has described the women to me as pleasant and sympathetic. One of them told her that the session would be recorded: ‘I’ll take a few notes and record it as well. That goes onto our database for accuracy.’

Caroline, meanwhile, was making her own recording of the session: this was the second thing she did that most of the other survivors presumably did not do. As Caroline gave her oral testimony, one of the staff members took notes and the other asked some questions. Towards the end of the session, which lasted just under an hour, Caroline read out her written statement. At the end, one of the women explained that there would be a general report compiled from all of the testimony, and thanked Caroline for hers, emphasizing how important it was.

In January of this year, when the commission published its final report, survivors saw that their testimony to the Confidential Committee had been dealt with not in the main body of the report, but in the Confidential Committee’s own, essentially separate, report. (The evidence received by the commission’s Investigation Committee is treated in the main report.) Per the terms of its agreement with survivors giving testimony, the Confidential Committee’s report anonymized the stories it told; but having listened to Caroline’s recording of her testimony, I have been able to locate two passages that clearly derive from that testimony. The first occurs on page 83 of the Confidential Committee’s 190-page report:

Early in the 1980s, the Committee was told by a witness that at 17-years old, having given birth to her baby, she was being stitched by a male nurse, when in her hearing, he made a jocose comment about her to his female colleagues who were also there: ‘She’ll be tighter now than she was before’. They laughed.

This passage accurately conveys a story Caroline told in her oral testimony.

The second reference deriving from Caroline’s testimony occurs on page 156:

Also in the early 1980s, a 17-year old girl who had her baby in a home was forced by her mother to have the baby adopted. This witness and her boyfriend had been together since they were 10 years old, ‘really loved each other’ and had wanted to keep their baby. But a short time after the baby was given away, the witness’s mother began ‘attempting suicide in different ways.’ The witness found her ‘with her head in the oven, with slit wrists, having taking overdoses’.
Her mother did die by suicide two years after the baby was adopted and it was only then that the witness discovered that her mother had been in a Magdalen laundry when she was younger and believes this may have been the cause of all this distress, especially why her mother had reacted so badly to the witness’s pregnancy.

This passage contains inaccuracies that may shed light on the commission’s opaque methodology in its handling of survivor testimony. The passage consists mainly of paraphrase, but it also includes three brief direct quotations – none of which is accurate. Nowhere in the recording of her session with the Confidential Committee does Caroline say that she and her boyfriend ‘really loved each other’. And regarding her mother’s suicide attempts, Caroline spoke of ‘different styles – head in the oven, a knife to her wrists, tablets, overdoses’. The report took what is clearly an account of various different methods of attempting suicide on different occasions and rendered it as a single event.

How, in a passage consisting mostly of paraphrase and summary of elements from Caroline’s testimony, did the Confidential Committee manage to invent one quotation and botch another? It is hard to imagine that this could have happened if the authors were working directly from the commission’s recording of the session, or from an accurate transcript of that recording. Misquotation is likelier if the authors were working from notes made by one of the staff members during Caroline’s testimony. If that’s what happened, it seems like culpable sloppiness.

Caroline’s testimony is a vivid, informative, concise distillation of a life changed utterly at a very young age by her pregnancy and its consequences, by the loss of her child, by the obstacles placed in the way of her search for her son, by her mother’s mental illness, by her powerlessness in the face of these forces, and by her eventual empowerment and courage in telling the truth about all that befell her. For anyone conducting research on the mother and baby homes, as the commission was, this sort of testimony is indescribably valuable.

Caroline is not the only survivor who has seen evidence of sloppiness in the Confidential Committee’s handling of testimony. Noelle Brown, who was born in Bessborough mother and baby home in 1965, was phoned by a commission employee in December 2020. The employee asked if she wanted anything redacted from her testimony to the Confidential Committee before publication of the report. Noelle asked that this request be put in writing, which it was. She then requested a copy of her testimony, and any other documents relating to her in the commission’s possession. A commission employee offered to read her testimony to her over the phone; Noelle declined, and insisted on a written copy. In a second phone call some days later, the commission employee agreed to send it. Noelle received it on the day the commission report was published.

She expected to find a typed transcript of what she had said. Instead, she was sent a form consisting of 220 questions with boxes to be ticked, covering areas such as social class, religion, education, relationships, and mental health. In filling out this form after hearing Noelle’s testimony, the committee had got many important facts wrong – her religion, the date of her birth mother’s death, the date of her own discharge from Bessborough, even the fact that Noelle was adopted: they described her as having been reared by her birth parents.

A summary of Noelle’s verbal testimony was typed into a box on the page, headed ‘Significant Life Events’. This summary is clearly the basis for the following paragraph, which appears on pages 174–5 of the Confidential Committee report:

In 2002, another witness (born in a home in the mid-1960s) began the process of tracing her birthmother and was given the relevant telephone number to call by an [adoption] agency. Having left messages on an answering machine for several months, she was then contacted by a nun ‘who was extremely rude and unhelpful’. As a result, she ‘stopped tracing efforts for a year’ then resumed, contacting the original agency and explaining what had previously happened with that nun.
From then on, with agency personnel making the contacts on her behalf, she told the Committee that she was ‘bombarded with information and family involvement’, discovering, for instance, that nine years before she discovered her birthmother’s identity, she had died from contracting Hepatitis C from contaminated blood products. But she did meet her mother’s sister before she too died.

According to Noelle, the latter part of this account misconstrues her experience. She had contacted the adoption agency seeking basic information about her birth mother. Without asking Noelle’s permission, a nun at the agency contacted her birth mother’s sister, her nearest living blood relative. Noelle felt ‘bombarded’ by what followed because she had not been informed that the nun was going to initiate contact with her birth mother’s family. Noelle says that she said all of this in her testimony to the Confidential Committee, and her experience reflects a common dynamic: even when the religious orders that ran adoption agencies were willing to help adoptees make contact with relatives, they often did so on their own terms, rather than in consultation with the adoptee. But the report, for whatever reason, missed this crucial detail.

Noelle went to the media with the news of the basic errors on the form prepared by the Confidential Committee. Coming just as its report was published, this created a problem for the commission: there was now a serious question about its treatment of survivors’ testimony. It soon emerged that the commission had destroyed the original recordings of that testimony, causing anger and distress among survivors and their advocates that was widely aired in the national media and in the Dáil.

The commission was headed by three figures of extensive relevant experience. Judge Yvonne Murphy, the chair, is a former chair of the commissions of inquiry into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy from, or attached to, the Archdiocese of Dublin and the Diocese of Cloyne (which reported in 2009 and 2011 respectively). Professor Mary Daly is a former Professor of Modern Irish History at University College Dublin and author of many books, including The Slow Failure: Population Decline and Independent Ireland, 1920–1973. Professor William Duncan is former Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin, a former member of the Law Reform Commission, and former Deputy Secretary General of the Hague Conference on Private International Law, where he had primary responsibility for the Children’s Conventions. Barrister Ita Mangan, who also served with the investigations into the Dublin archdiocese and Cloyne diocese, was the director of the commission, which had a staff of forty-five.

The commission’s report has the following to say about the recordings: ‘Witnesses were asked for permission to record their evidence on the clear understanding that the recordings would be used only as an aide memoire for the researcher when compiling the report and would then be destroyed. All such recordings were destroyed after the report was added to the Confidential Committee electronic repository of information.’

As it turned out, survivors who had kept the documentation given to them by the commission prior to their visits were able to demonstrate that they were told no such thing in any document sent to them. The information leaflet that was sent to those who applied to give testimony to the commission states: ‘There will be one Confidential Committee Member in the room and another experienced person taking notes. If you agree, an audio recording will be made of the meeting so that the members can have as full an account as possible to assist them in preparing their report.’ The leaflet makes no reference to destroying the audio recording; nor does the separate application form. We also know, from the recording made by Caroline O’Connor, that the Confidential Committee staff members who took Caroline’s testimony said nothing about destroying the recording of the session.

In late February, amid the controversy over the fate of the recordings, Patsy McGarry reported in the Irish Times that the commission had told the Minister it believed ‘very strongly’ that the recordings should be destroyed, and that a spokesperson had said this was ‘for legal and moral reasons’. The precise legal and moral reasons at issue were not specified, and at the time of writing, in mid-May, this seems to be the only public statement the commission has made since the report was published.

Another woman who gave testimony to the Confidential Committee, Annette McKay, told the story of her mother, Margaret Heaton (originally Maggie O’Connor), who became pregnant as a result of being raped in an industrial school in 1942 at the age of seventeen, and had given birth in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home to a child whose fate was unknown. Annette requested the material held by the commission in connection with her testimony. She received a form similar to that sent to Noelle Brown, and on 2 March she posted a photo of it with a tweet: ‘This is what the MBHC sent me today. An account of my testimony as a series of tick boxes and a paragraph. It’s an insult. Is this acceptable?’

The form used by the Confidential Committee in connection with Annette’s testimony is slightly different from the form it used for Noelle Brown’s testimony. The headings seem to suggest that the form used for Annette was tailored to relatives of survivors, while the form used for Noelle was tailored to survivors themselves. The text box containing a summary of Annette’s testimony reads as follows:

The witness is now deceased, she passed away in 2016 aged 92. Her daughter gave evidence on her behalf. She did not reveal she had been in Tuam to her family until she was in her 70s. She suffered from post-traumatic stress and was in psychiatric care for a period. She also suffered a breakdown. She married twice. She continued to suffer from depression and was on medication. She would, on occasion, talk about the nuns and how cruel they were. ‘She always lived on the edge’. She also tried to commit suicide a number of times. ‘Her relationships were fraught’. ‘Even after divulging at 70 she still didn’t open up, it was never mentioned again’. ‘It’s an ongoing torture, I always thought I’d be able to tell my mother I know where your baby is.’ For the last 12 years of her life she suffered from Alzheimer’s and was in a home. Her daughter did the searching on her behalf but struggled to get information – ‘full and frank disclosure should be made available to the families’.

I searched the PDF of the Confidential Committee report for distinctive words attributed directly to Annette: ‘edge’, ‘fraught’, ‘divulging’, ‘torture’ and ‘disclosure’. I also searched using the words ‘Alzheimer’s’, ‘depression’, ‘post-traumatic’ and ‘breakdown’. And I searched by the year in which Margaret gave birth and her age at the time. I found nothing in the 190 pages of the Confidential Committee report that corresponded to Annette’s testimony. I then searched the chapter on the Tuam mother and baby home, and again found nothing.

The story of Annette McKay’s mother is the story of a seventeen-year-old girl who was raped in an industrial school, whose mental health was grievously affected by traumatic experiences in that institution and in a mother and baby home, and who never got any information about the fate of the baby to whom she gave birth in Tuam in 1943. As far as I can tell, this story has left no trace in any part of the commission’s report.

Thanks to survivors, we know that there are serious problems with the Confidential Committee report: clear misquotations and misrepresentations, and – in the case of Annette McKay’s testimony – a complete omission that is presumably not the only one. We know that these faults, along with the fiasco over the recordings, have angered survivors and seriously undermined the impact of the report with the general public. What is less clear is how such failings could have come about.

As noted, the commission has not had much to say in public, so we must turn to the report itself for clues. One key passage reads as follows:

An electronic repository of information was set up to record the information provided by witnesses to the Confidential Committee. This repository contains the application form of the witness and the account of the experiences described by the witness to the committee. The Commission proposes to redact the names and other identifying information before submitting this repository as part of the Commission’s archives to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth unless the particular witness wants the name retained. The person’s full story is retained in this process.

In light of the evidence preserved by survivors, almost every substantive element of this passage seems questionable. We know that ‘the account of the experiences described by the witness’ refers not to an audio recording (because these were never intended to be preserved in the electronic repository) nor to a transcript of the recording but to a form that was apparently completed without reference to the recording. And we know that, quite apart from basic factual errors and misquotations, these forms contained nothing like the ‘full story’ told by each witness.

Elsewhere in the Confidential Committee report, a similar claim is made: ‘This report is a compilation of what the witnesses told the Confidential Committee. It is expressed largely in the words used by the individual themselves.’

The mystery is why the commission even bothered making such claims. They are perhaps of a piece with other claims in the report – by turns self-congratulatory and defensive – about how sensitively the commission treated survivors and survivor testimony. The problem is not that the commission wasn’t aware of the importance of being sensitive to survivors or of properly representing their testimony. The problem is that it seems to have been unable, in practice, to live up to its own undertakings.

There was another way the commission could have handled survivor testimony. The Confidential Committee could have made transcripts of the tapes, given them to survivors for review, and, in consultation with survivors, edited them to a reasonable length for publication. That is what happened in the production of a substantial academic report on mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries in Northern Ireland, published just days after the commission’s report. The Northern project was on a smaller scale, but there is no compelling reason why the Southern commission could not have followed a similar approach to those who shared their stories with it. In this context it seems relevant to note that by the time the commission had finished its work, nearly half of its €23 million budget remained unspent.

3. The Investigation Committee

562014-tuam-single-mothers-and-babies-homes Where the remains of some children born at Tuam mother and baby home are buried. Source: Laura Hutton

The commission’s Confidential Committee seems to have operated in a bubble. There is no sign that the testimony it heard from 550 witnesses was considered in the writing of the main commission report.

This is not to say that survivor testimony does not figure in the main report. It does, but here another mystery arises. The commission’s judicial arm was known as the Investigation Committee. It heard evidence from a wide range of witnesses, including sixty-four institutional survivors, and followed a more rigorous evidentiary standard: for example, witnesses could be cross-examined, and they also had the option of submitting a sworn affidavit. But nowhere does the commission explain how these sixty-four survivors came to be selected.

In correspondence between June 2015 and August 2016, the law firm Hogan Lovells, representing the Clann Project, an umbrella survivors’ advocacy organization, attempted to get information on this from the commission. On 9 August 2016, Hogan Lovells wrote:

[We] would also like to draw one further important issue to the Commission’s attention. This issue is that a number of individuals responding to the Clann Project, including a number of people who have appeared before the Confidential Committee, seem to have absolutely no idea about the difference between giving evidence to the Confidential Committee and giving evidence to the main Investigation Committee, or indeed the fact that there are two options open to them. Having reviewed the Commission’s website, we note that the Commission’s rules and procedures, which identify the two ways to give evidence, are not shown on the website and there is no mention of being able to give direct evidence in person to the Commission other than via the Confidential Committee. Both we and our clients consider that this is a significant deficiency in the Commission’s advertising of the options open to individuals that should be remedied as soon as possible.

The relevant passage in the commission’s reply, dated 27 August 2016, is Kafkaesque:

The Investigation Committee consists of all three of the Commissioners (Judge Murphy, Professor Mary Daly and Dr William Duncan) or any one or two of them. The Investigation Committee will invite witnesses to give evidence which will add to its body of knowledge of the issues under investigation. Not everyone who expresses an interest in giving evidence to the Investigation Committee will be invited for hearing. The procedures for appearing before the Investigation Committee are set out in our Rules and Procedures (a copy of which has already been furnished to your clients).
You note that our Rules and Procedures are not on our website. Section 13 of the Commissions of Investigation Act requires the Commission to provide a copy of our Rules and Procedures to any person giving evidence to the Commission — i.e. to the Investigation Committee. The document is necessarily of a legalistic and technical nature. Most of it does not apply to individuals meeting with the Confidential Committee. The Commission has made a decision not to put this document on our website so as not to dissuade such persons from applying to the Confidential Committee, which is of a more informal nature. A copy of our Rules and Procedures will be provided to anyone on request and we will arrange to put a notice to this effect on our website.

The commission’s website has been closed down since the publication of the report, so there is no way of establishing whether the commission did, in fact, put a copy of its Rules and Procedures on it. No one at the Clann Project remembers seeing it there. The Clann Project obtained a copy of the Rules and Procedures prior to their own attendance at the Investigation Committee. It is a thirty-eight-page document, and it is indeed ‘of a legalistic and technical nature’, covering a wide range of topics – but there is nothing specifically about invitations to survivors. This mystery, which vexed survivors and advocates while the commission was doing its work, is not cleared up in the published report. It is a peculiar silence – all the more so given that the 2009 Ryan report on child abuse in industrial schools and other institutions went to some trouble in its introduction to explain the difference between its two comparable committees.

The Clann Project has established that when survivors wrote to the commission requesting an invitation to give testimony, they were sent a copy of the information leaflet for the Confidential Committee and an application form. Noelle Brown, who didn’t know about the Investigation Committee, was alerted to its existence by the Adoption Rights Alliance, and was advised to ask at the Confidential Committee to be invited to give testimony at the Investigation Committee. She did so, but was not granted a hearing.

It looks as though the commission severely limited the number of survivors who could attend the Investigation Committee, by not advertising its existence and by directing survivors to the Confidential Committee. It remains unclear on what basis sixty-four survivors were chosen to attend.

The institutions in which the sixty-four were resident as either mothers or children were Tuam, Pelletstown, Bessborough, Sean Ross, Castlepollard, the Bethany Home in Dublin, and Dunboyne. The Investigation Committee heard from no survivors of the following institutions that fell under its remit: Belmont flatlets, Regina Coeli, Denny House, Kilrush Nursery, Miss Carr’s, The Castle, St Gerard’s, Cork County Home, Thomastown County Home, Stranorlar County Home.

The testimony of the survivors who were chosen to give evidence to the Investigation Committee, and of people who worked in the homes, is extensively summarized and quoted verbatim at the end of each of the commission’s chapters on individual institutions. At the beginning of each of these chapters, the commission lists the ‘main sources’ it drew upon. These include congregational records, Department of Health files, diocesan archives, and local authority archives. Bizarrely, survivor testimony is not listed among these sources. The implication seems to be that such evidence is not on a par with archival evidence.

4. The Report

8349 Mother baby bill Source: Sasko Lazarov

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters was, in the words of its report, established ‘to provide a full account of what happened to vulnerable women and children in Mother and Baby Homes during the period 1922 to 1998’. Its remit included seventeen separate institutions.

This is a wide brief, pursued across 2,865 pages. One has no right to expect dazzling prose in such a document, but it is striking how badly written, argued and organized the commission’s report is. The tone is at times hectoring, at times defensive, at times cryptic – and sometimes all three, as in this passage from the Introduction, which the commission took the trouble to put inside a box, and in bold type:

The task of any Commission of Investigation is to investigate the matters set out in its Terms of Reference. It must carry out its work in accordance with the 2004 Act and its Terms of Reference. It must look at all the available evidence and reach conclusions based on that evidence. It must be objective, rigorous and thorough. The conclusions it reaches may not always accord with the prevailing narrative.

They don’t describe what they consider to be ‘the prevailing narrative’.

The commission makes a very large claim in the second paragraph of the Executive Summary:

Women who gave birth outside marriage were subject to particularly harsh treatment. Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families. It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches. However, it must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge – a harsh refuge in some cases – when the families provided no refuge at all.

Astonishingly, the commission does not even hint here at an awareness of the nexus of power and ideology created in independent Ireland by the Catholic Church, with the full and enthusiastic assistance of the state. The commission’s view seems to be that sexual morality was disseminated from the bottom up – Church and State responding to the popular will, and even softening its worst excesses. This is a vast claim, at odds with a substantial body of historiography, and yet nowhere in the report does the commission explain how it came to this view.

The Executive Summary’s section headed ‘Treatment in the Institutions’ includes the following passage:

The conditions were regimented and institutional especially in the larger institutions and particularly before the 1970s but there is no evidence of the sort of gross abuse that occurred in industrial schools. There are a small number of complaints of physical abuse.

The oddly unpunctuated first sentence is an example of the general lack of care taken with the writing of the report. In the second sentence, the commission does not specify the sample from which the ‘small number of complaints’ arose, but other indications suggest that it is most likely the sixty-four survivors who gave testimony to the Investigation Committee. Even if the 550 witnesses to the Confidential Committee are also being referred to, this can only be described as an extremely modest sample, given that the commission found that a total of 56,000 women and 57,000 children went through these institutions. It is also nothing like a representative sample: it is skewed (unavoidably) towards people who were in the homes towards the latter part of their period of operation. Thus it is hard to view the commission’s word ‘small’ as having any meaning. The lack of rigour on display here, and the casual minimization of the whole topic, is breathtaking.

Despite its painfully visible shortcomings, the report has many useful aspects. Making use of an unmatched body of research, including privileged access to archives hitherto not accessible by researchers, the report details entry and exit patterns for women and children; appalling living conditions; the scale of child mortality; shocking burial practices; vaccine trials on children; and coercive control, mistreatment and abuse of women and children. It also details, but does not analyze, the relationships between the homes and local authorities, government departments and Church authorities.

At times the report seems to be at odds with itself. It is hard to imagine that whoever wrote and signed off on the second paragraph of the Executive Summary even read the chapter on ‘Attitudes’ in the report’s Social History section, which illuminates the collaboration between Church and State in pushing a highly restrictive conception of sexual morality. For example:

The foundation of the Irish Free State, with an overwhelmingly Catholic population, was seen by some Catholic churchmen and zealous lay people as an opportunity to create a modern Catholic state, introducing laws and practices that were consistent with Catholic teaching, not just on sexual morality, but on a wide range of social issues.

And:

Most politicians and senior public servants in national and local government were Catholic and a substantial number were devout Catholics whose religious practice extended to active involvement in organisations such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul, confraternities, and the secretive Knights of St Columbanus. Many files seen by the Commission reflect an implicit, almost automatic assumption that public policy should be in line with the views of the Catholic hierarchy, or the religious sisters who were in charge of various institutions.

And further:

In February 1935, the parish priest of Westport wrote to the Archbishop of Tuam. ‘I have the very unpleasant duty to report to His Grace the Archbishop that an illegitimate child was born to a girl named [full name was given] in this parish, living about three miles from here. The child lived only a few days and was not brought to the church for baptism. It was given lay baptism. The guards exhumed the body and the medical evidence showed it died from natural causes. A denunciation will take place on Sunday next. I am told the alleged father denies guilt in the matter.’

The chapter interestingly explores the connections between the Church and local authorities, absolutely establishing the local authorities’ desire to rely on religious ideology regarding women pregnant outside marriage and their children, and to support institutions for them which they funded. This is good work, but it is buried deep in a vast report that, owing to its shambolic launch and glaring weaknesses, is not going to be widely read. People have read and will in future look to the Executive Summary, where these insights into the workings of Irish culture – with their obvious implications for our understanding of the institutions – clearly weren’t assimilated.

Marie Collins, a survivor of clerical child sexual abuse in the 1960s, was asked by Derek Scally for his recent book The Best Catholics in the World why she didn’t go to the police when her first complaint was ignored by her parish priest in 1985. She said, ‘We had no access to other ways of thinking.’ Scally’s book is particularly good on the ‘bystander effect’, whereby large groups of people are aware of shocking abuse by powerful figures, but do nothing about it and take refuge in silence.

A society drenched in the idea of sin, particularly sexual sin, starting with small children educated in religious schools, reinforced by parents brought up the same way themselves, by weekly confession, by yearly missions which specialized in the contemplation of sin, by a state that willingly and eagerly co-opted Catholic teaching into its policy positions and practical operations, by censorship, by constant condemnation of any ideas other than those sanctified by Church and State, by the erection of forbidding buildings with high walls on the edges of towns in order to contain transgressive women and their children: this creates a closed feedback loop of power and ideology from which it is very hard to escape. These insights are not new; they have been available to us for decades now. The Irish public could reasonably have expected them to be at the heart of the report on mother and baby homes, and has cause to be furious that they are not.

5. The Archives

download (6) A headstone at St Peter's Mother and Baby Home in Castlepollard. Source: Courtesy of Uncharted Ireland

Many survivors of the mother and baby homes are desperate for access to any records pertaining to their own time in these institutions and, if applicable, to records relating to adoption and fostering. In practical terms, this means access to the records of the religious congregations that ran the homes; to reports on boarded-out children by public health inspectors; and to the records of the adoption societies and the Adoption Board. Scholars of twentieth-century social, demographic, gender and religious history also need access to these archives so that we may gain a full understanding of how society functioned, particularly in relation to the close relationship between Church and State, and the consequences of that relationship for women, their children and their families.

The records of the congregations who ran the mother and baby homes are the most valuable of the documents consulted by the commission. Most of these records were provided to the commission on a privileged basis: in other words, they were not open to anyone before the commission saw them, and now that the commission is done with them they have returned to their closed archives. In many cases we knew nothing, or next to nothing, about the nature of the records held by the religious orders regarding the homes. The commission could not compel the orders to open their records to scholars, but it did have an opportunity – not to say a moral obligation – to give us a detailed map of the territory.

It did not embrace the opportunity. Its accounts of the archival sources it consulted are often vague and unhelpful. The commission’s terms of reference state: ‘In order to assist public understanding the Commission should provide in its reports an outline of the archival and other sources of most relevance to these issues and the nature and extent of the records therein, together with the challenges and opportunities in exploiting these sources for the purpose of further historical research or examination.’ It is hard to conclude that the commission complied with this requirement.

For reasons that are not clear, the commission provides dramatically varying levels of detail in its descriptions of the records of the religious orders. For example, there is detailed description of the admission registers at the Tuam home, run by the Sisters of Bon Secours:

The Admission Registers record the admission of every new resident to Tuam. Each new resident was assigned a unique register number. Those whose maintenance was paid by Galway County Council were recorded in blue or black pen. Those whose maintenance was paid by Mayo County Council were recorded in red pen. The date of admission (or date of birth in the institution), name, age, sex, marital status-child’s ‘legitimacy’, occupation (if any), religious denomination, disability (if any), place of birth (children’s Glenamaddy admissions only), date of birth (children’s admission only), address prior to admission, name and address of nearest relative, date of discharge or death, cause of death (Glenamaddy only) and place of discharge (Glenamaddy register only) are all recorded in the register. The admission register also records a resident’s previous register number in the case of their re-admission (for example, from hospital or unsuccessful boarding out). There is a column for the name of the resident’s spouse if not in the institution; however in the case of Tuam, this column was never used for that purpose. Instead, it was used to record the name of the parish priest of the resident. Another column not used is one titled ‘No. of children if not in Institution’. Another column is named ‘Observations on condition of Inmates when admitted’.

That is the level of description to be expected when dealing with material of such significance. These registers have never been seen by survivors, or by researchers other than the commission’s. But the list of other records relating to Tuam – described by the commission (twice) as ‘comprehensive’ – is perfunctory, with dates missing for about half the entries. One file is listed merely as ‘Children’s Home, Tuam, Co. Galway: Children’: this tells us nothing. It looks as if two different people worked on the different aspects of the Tuam catalogue, one dedicated to giving the fullest possible information, the other not.

The commission notes that ‘The Sisters of Bon Secours told the Commission that their archive contained 281 boxes and there were only two boxes that related to Tuam.’ Did the Commission get to look at any of the other 279 boxes? It seems very odd that no more than two boxes of records survive relating to the management and staffing of a home that was in existence for thirty-six years.

The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary ran three of the biggest mother and baby homes: Bessborough, Castlepollard, and Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea. The report states that the congregation ‘facilitated the Commission in accessing the congregational archive in Chigwell, London’, but it gives only the barest one-line descriptions of the collections.

Elsewhere, we are told that ‘The Commission received very few records from the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.’ The chapter goes on to describe the tortuous process through which the commission sought, and was usually denied, access to administrative and especially financial records. It took extensive prodding to get sworn affidavits from members of the order who had worked at the home. The order chose to use a historian to compile various papers based on the records rather than allow access to the records themselves.

The commission tells us that it has created a database of records relating to individuals, compiled from the original admissions and other records of the various homes. It says that this database is to be given to the Child and Family Agency (Tusla), in order to assist adoptees, and to the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth as part of the overall archive of the commission. This database has been compiled from the original admissions and discharge registers held by the religious congregations. The report tells us that these original registers are in the possession of Tusla, but not whether they will stay with Tusla. It is very important that they do – rather than be returned to the congregations. The gold standard for digitization is ultimate access to the original record, in the case of any doubt about transcription. If these vitally important original records are to remain in the custody of Tusla, the agency must guarantee their preservation and proper archival storage. The agency has no dedicated repository with security and environmental protections for archives. Ideally, these records should be kept in one place – rather than in Tusla’s various offices around the country, as has been the case – under the supervision of professional archivists.

Another important set of records received by the commission came from the pharmaceutical conglomerate now known as GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), regarding to seven vaccine trials involving children in the institutions under the commission’s remit between 1934 and 1973. The commission found that some of these trials violated even the relatively lax standards of the time regarding consent, along with other violations relating to import licences and research licensing.

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The report gives a long list of GSK files, all with one-line descriptions that are not particularly useful to researchers. There are no reference numbers for the files, and no indication of whether the commission scanned these files before returning them to GSK. Given the importance of this issue, the GSK files should have been catalogued in detail. They have been returned to GSK, with no indication that anyone else can see them.

The report’s chapter on archives ends with recommendations as to what should happen to various kinds of records relating to the institutions. Department of Health records are, as the commission points out, already covered by the National Archives Act of 1986, which requires the release of departmental records that are more than thirty years old, with certain defined exceptions. But some of the applicable Department of Health records have not been transferred to the National Archives, and the report offers no explanation for this apparent violation of the law. These are perhaps the most fascinating of the documents consulted by the commission. They deal, among other things, with inspections of the homes. The inspectors (all, incidentally, women) wrote detailed, often critical reports about living conditions, care of babies and older children, diet, staffing, arrangements for births and a host of other issues. The commission sensibly recommends that ‘digital copies, together with a descriptive list, be made available within six months to readers in the National Archives of Ireland’. It notes that the files will have to be redacted to remove the names of residents, but ‘this process should not be used to delay public access; files should be made available as they are cleared, and the work should be completed within 12 months.’ The National Archives has confirmed to me that it is in discussion with the Department of Health regarding transfer of the original records to their custody.

The commission also recommends adding the records of the Ryan commission on institutional child abuse to the database of the mother and baby homes commission. The Ryan commission records are presumably still in the custody of the Department of Education. A controversial attempt to ‘seal’ those records for seventy-five years, through the Records Retention Bill of 2019, lapsed in 2020 and has not been revived. It is not a bad idea to add these records to those of the mother and baby homes commission, and to make them both subject to the provisions of the National Archives Act.

There is also a somewhat cryptic paragraph on diocesan and religious order records:

Diocesan records and the records of the religious orders involved in the institutions are the property of the holders and they have the right to determine who gets access. The Commission was given voluntary access to every diocesan archive which was asked. Two of the religious orders provided extensive documentation under orders for discovery while others provided the limited documentation which they had available. The Commission would encourage relevant religious orders to make more documentation publicly available.

There was an opportunity here for the commission to call forcefully and vociferously on the religious orders to make their records publicly available, on the grounds that their almost complete control of healthcare, education and institutional care in twentieth-century Ireland effectively made them an arm of the state. Granting proper access to these records could usefully form part of the religious congregations’ (and the Church of Ireland’s) contribution to redress for survivors. However, the commission was content to merely ‘encourage’.

Upon the eruption of the controversy over the commission’s destruction of the recordings of survivor testimony, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Roderic O’Gorman, initiated a search of the server that held the commission’s electronic records. It emerged that backup recordings survived and were viable. At the time of writing, the fate of the recordings had not yet been determined, but the commission’s stated preference – mass destruction – surely cannot be among the options. Some survivors may prefer that their material be destroyed. Equally, some may wish to have the recording preserved but closed to access for a period of time, and some may wish it to be fully open to the public. (Many survivors are keen for their testimonies to be used as educational tools in Irish schools, as a way to alert young people to what happened not so long ago in their country.) All of these wishes need to be accommodated, and the recordings preserved safely until agreements can be reached.

6. The Next Investigation

STATE APOLOGY An Taoiseach Micheal Martin giving a State Apology after the findings of the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. Source: Sam Boal

In 1996, when I was working as an archivist at the National Archives, responsible for the records of certain government departments, I discovered almost two thousand files relating to the adoption of Irish children abroad – mostly in the US – between 1948 and 1974. Each file related to an individual child, but practically all of the material on the files referred to the prospective adoptive parents: their religion, educational status, economic circumstances, living conditions and other children, if any. The only document on each file directly relating to the relevant child was the consent form signed by the child’s mother, granting permission to have the child adopted and promising never to attempt to see her or him again. The name, address and age of the birth mother appeared on this form.

When the existence of these files was announced, it became a huge media story. Because I had appeared on TV and talked on radio, I became the person anyone looking for further information would contact. In the weeks after the files’ existence became known, I took more than a hundred phone calls from interested people. The vast majority of them were birth mothers, and most of them were terrified at the prospect of these files being opened up, and someone turning up on their doorsteps whose existence they had never divulged to anyone. These women had carried a secret with them throughout their lives, and were totally unprepared to deal with its being revealed after many years. Most of them had married and had other children, but had not told their husbands or children about their previous son or daughter.

Those who had not married were more likely to wish for reunion with their adopted children. Some had been trying, without success, to find them for many years. They presumably felt they had less to lose should their secret come out.

I was able to reassure the frightened mothers that the files were closed, and only non-identifying information would be given to enquirers, such as the institution or agency that had arranged the adoption. Those seeking further information could then apply to those entities.

These calls were often the first occasion on which many of these women had spoken about their adopted child. I was aware of this, and very anxious not to distress them further. I listened respectfully to their stories, and explained that I was not a trained counsellor but that Barnardo’s could supply such a service if they felt they needed it. Some talked about how they still missed their lost children, and that under different circumstances they would love to see them again.

The strength of the desire of some birth mothers not to disclose their whereabouts or to communicate with their adopted children led to a court case decided in the Supreme Court in 1998, I.O’T v B, which found that the birth mother’s constitutional right to privacy outweighed the child’s constitutional right to identity information. That decision has, until recently, bedevilled attempts to pass adequate adoption and tracing legislation, with successive attorneys general advising against granting identity rights to adult adopted children. GDPR, the EU-wide data protection regulation that came into effect in 2018, has changed this, as it guarantees identity rights to all EU citizens and supersedes national law.

A lot has changed since 1998. A series of public inquiries, and the work of campaigning and advocacy groups, have placed the plight of adoptees firmly in the public view. Despite legal restrictions, some adoptees have succeeded in finding the information they need, with the help of agencies like Barnardo’s. Most survivors who have spoken of their quest have emphasized that they have no desire for contact with birth parents unless it is wanted. But there is still no legal right to such information, and up to now, efforts to acquire it have been obstructed by congregations, state authorities and adoption societies.

We have no way of knowing how many birth mothers, who may have been opposed to providing contact or basic information to their children in 1998, have changed their minds since then; but we may hope that the shifting climate has helped at least some of them to understand how damaging the secrecy has been to all concerned, and that it is no longer viable to deny fundamental identity rights to adopted children.

The commission report competently outlines the fraught history of informal and (from 1953) legal adoption in Ireland, along with fosterage or ‘boarding out’, and the still murky history of foreign adoptions, which were not regulated even after 1953. These were the most common ‘exit pathways’ for children from the mother and baby homes. But the commission’s terms of reference did not require it to look at the issue of adoption – including the role of the adoption societies – in a broader way. The work it did is very useful as far as it goes, but the commission’s failure to expand its terms of reference to allow an examination of the records of the adoption societies means that a key piece of the picture is missing.

Although it had been known since 1996 that some adoptees had been falsely registered as the natural children of their adoptive parents, the issue had lain dormant until the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI) carried out a partial audit of its own files in 2011. They alerted the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to their discovery of potential illegal birth registrations, and again in 2013 and 2015, and recommended a full review of all of its files, which included 30,000 files from adoption agencies. But no action was taken, and repeated requests for further information from the AAI and from journalists failed to elicit any response from the Department of Children and the Youth Affairs.

In 2014 St Patrick’s Guild, one of the biggest Catholic adoption agencies, transferred its records to Tusla. Following an examination of these records, Tusla confirmed that some of them included index cards marked ‘Adopted from birth’. This was understood to indicate that the legally required consent interval for the birth mother had not been observed, and that the birth might have been illegally registered, falsely indicating that the adoptive parents were the birth parents. In February 2018, Tusla informed the Department of Children and Youth Affairs that it had found documentary evidence of apparently ‘incorrect’ or illegal birth registrations in 126 of the 13,500 records that had been transferred to it from the former St Patrick’s Guild Adoption Society. In some of these instances, individuals had never been informed that they had been adopted.

In light of the St Patrick’s Guild findings, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, directed in May 2018 that an independent analysis of adoption records should be carried out to see if the extent of incorrect registrations of births could be established. She also directed that records of former adoption agencies held by Tusla and the AAI be sampled. Between them, these agencies hold some 100,000 such files. In addition, a wide range of existing and former adoption agencies hold an estimated 50,000 files.

Minister Zappone appointed Marian Reynolds, a former deputy director of social services in Northern Ireland, as the independent reviewer tasked with overseeing this sampling and analysis. Reynolds set out a proper sampling procedure for the files held by Tusla and the AAI. Certain ‘markers’ were to be sought in the sample indicating the possibility of illegal birth registration. These markers were phrases such as ‘wrongful adoption’, ‘adopted from birth’, ‘private adoption’ and others.

The review team examined 1,496 records from twenty-five adoption agencies, and in its report published in March of this year it found that there were ‘markers’ on 267 records, nearly 18 per cent of the files. Based on the prevalence of these ‘markers’ within this sample, the review estimates that between 5,500 and 20,000 files may have similar indicators within the wider State archives, consisting of about 100,000 records.

One of the review team’s recommendations, dealing with the proposed right of adopted people to see their birth records, also deals with birth mothers: ‘As this removes the right to privacy previously afforded to birth parents it is also recommended that the State provides a six-month period during which those who wish to have their privacy maintained must in writing give notice that they wish to opt out of the disclosure provisions recommended.’ Although well-intentioned, this prescription may serve to dilute the absolute right to identity information now being contemplated. Some support for reluctant birth mothers could be provided in the form of mediation, but the right to identity must take precedence over the right to a privacy that deprives adopted children of essential information.

As to the central issue examined in the review, it should be blindingly obvious that the only way to get a complete picture of illegal adoption practices is to read every one of the 150,000 files available. This should be the central task of any new inquiry into Irish adoption.

Aoife Hegarty’s recent RTE documentary Who Am I? The Story of Ireland’s Illegal Adoptions demonstrated the shock and distress of adopted people, now in their sixties and seventies, on being told for the first time that they had been adopted. Tusla contacted the 126 people definitely established as having false birth certificates, broke that news to them, and then claimed that GDPR prevented them from giving further information. But it emerged that Tusla had been far from consistent in its handling of these interactions, and some adoptees managed to get more information from the social workers.

The mother and baby homes commission argued that ‘Adopted people should have a right to their birth certificates and associated birth information. A person’s right to his or her identity is an important human right and should only be denied in very exceptional circumstances … Medical information and adoption records compiled at the time of the adoption should also be available.’ This recommendation evidently strengthened the government’s resolve to finally enshrine these rights in legislation, and Minister O’Gorman promised that an Adoption and Tracing Bill would be brought forward quickly. On 11 May this year, he published the General Scheme of the bill, which will provide a right of access to birth certificates to adopted and boarded-out individuals, as well as ‘a broad range of birth, early life, care and medical information that may be contained in institutional or other records’. It is to O’Gorman’s credit that he has swiftly delivered on his promise to deliver this landmark legislation.

Now there needs to be a new inquiry into the broad adoption issue. The work already done by the commission on adoption, boarding-out and fosterage needs to be built on to provide a full account of adoption practices and experiences in Ireland before and after the Adoption Act of 1953, and the effects of these practices on the lives of those subject to them. The government has the opportunity to create a new, survivor-centred model for this inquiry, that might bring some satisfaction to those who have already waited far too long.

Postscript: On 2 June, after this essay went to press, one of the Mother and Baby Home commissioners, Professor Mary Daly, was a guest at the Oxford Seminar in Irish History. A number of survivors and their advocates participated in the online seminar, and had many questions for the commissioner, in what was the first public (or at least semi-public) appearance by a member of the commission since the report was published. Professor Daly confirmed what the contents of the main body of the commission’s report had strongly suggested: that the testimony of the 550 people who spoke to the Confidential Committee had been effectively disregarded in the main report, because that testimony did not conform to the rigid evidential standards required for the Investigation Committee. She also said it was ‘not a wise idea’ to have established the Investigation Committee and the Confidential Committee as part of the same process. She did not elaborate on what, specifically, she felt was not ‘wise’ about this, nor did she specify what approach to gathering survivor testimony she would have preferred.

The Dublin Review is a quarterly magazine of essays, memoir, reportage and fiction. Founded and edited by Brendan Barrington, it can be purchased via the Dublin Review website. Contributors to editions include Sara Baume, Kevin Barry, John Banville and Rachel Cusk.

About the author:

Catriona Crowe

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