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Opinion: Where does fatherhood feature in story of mother-and-baby homes?

Interestingly, in all the coverage about mother-and-baby homes over the past few weeks, the role of the fathers hasn’t been addressed to any extent.

Marcella Corcoran Kennedy

WOMEN DIDN’T JUST arrive in the mother-and-baby homes, they were there because they were pregnant and they didn’t get pregnant on their own.

All of the discussion in recent times around the mother-and-baby homes has rightly focused on the mothers, their babies, the people who ran the homes and on other very important issues around adoption, experimental vaccinations and the burial of deceased infants. A commission of investigation has been approved in which all aspects of the mother-and-baby homes will be vigorously explored in a thorough and considered way. This is most essential for our society to ensure that this can never happen again.

Interestingly, however, in all the coverage over the past few weeks, the role of the fathers hasn’t been addressed to any extent.

Where are the men in this story?

Who were the men who fathered all of these children? Why didn’t they take responsibility or could they take responsibility? Were some of the men involved already married or did they believe that the pregnant women weren’t good enough to marry? It is no secret that many of the women who found themselves in mother-and-baby homes did so after suffering horrific sexual abuse. The questions surrounding this issue are endless.

The reality is that mother-and-baby homes were a product of their time; the institutions themselves need to take responsibility, the State played a role, and society as a whole accepted that ‘fallen women’ were sent to these homes. This was never discussed and judging by the lack of information available, very few questions were asked. It may be the case that society was conspiring to control and repress women’s sexuality under the influence of a male Church preaching celibacy and anti-contraception to a male Government, or it may very well be the case that it was not socially acceptable for a man to stand by his woman out of wedlock.

During the era of the mother-and-baby homes, nothing was expected of a man who fathered a child, it was essentially the woman’s problem if unmarried. Fatherhood, at that time, was clearly not valued by society – and this is emphasised even further when you consider that widowers had their children taken off them when their wives died if they could not find a suitable woman to step into the maternal role.

What is the legacy of this old attitude?

We need to consider now the legacy of this attitude on today’s society. What, if anything, has changed? Fatherhood, in my opinion, is not something to be discarded like a used condom. In or out of wedlock, it should be something to be proud of; men should be in a position to take emotional and financial responsibility for their children. But fatherhood, by law, in the eyes of many, is still an option and that is wrong.

For children born outside of marriage in Ireland, only the mother has automatic rights to guardianship. In 2012, the Government passed the Civil Registration (Amendment) Act. This change demands that an unmarried father’s name is included on his child’s birth certificate, which gives children vital information about their identity and holds errant fathers to account to provide for their children.

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The Children’s First Bill published in April is also an important step forward in protecting our children and in ensuring that a situation like that of the mother-and-baby homes can never happen again. This Bill provides for key child protection measures which require specific people of responsibility to report child protection crimes. Had legislation such as this been in place all those years ago, many of the cases of neglect and abuse may not have happened.

With Father’s Day coming up on Sunday, this is a wonderful time to celebrate all that is good about fatherhood and to appreciate the majority of men who are loving, caring and very involved fathers. In a week when a Commission of Investigation into all Mother and Baby Homes was announced by the Minister for Children, Charlie Flanagan TD, we should now take this opportunity to have an open debate about fatherhood, about the men who abused and irreparably damaged so many women, about the men who were unwilling, or unable, to buck the trends that society accepted, and about the value that we now place on the role played by fathers.

Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, Fine Gael TD for Laois–Offaly.

Read: State files removed from National Archive following mother and baby home revelations

Opinion: Abuse and neglect are being hidden in plain sight – but will we open our eyes?

About the author:

Marcella Corcoran Kennedy

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