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Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 5°C
# the commission
Redacted Lives: Why survivors felt let down by the Commission into Mother and Baby Homes
The latest episode in our podcast series examines how the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes gathered evidence.

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THE FOURTH EPISODE of Redacted Lives, a new six-part documentary series by The Journal about mother and baby homes, is out now.

The series follows the experiences of mothers who ended up in institutions because they became pregnant outside marriage, as well as people born into the system.

Tens of thousands of pregnant women and girls were sent to mother and baby homes in Ireland throughout the 20th century. Their children were usually adopted or sent to industrial schools – often without their mother’s consent.

Mother and baby homes existed in many countries but the proportion of unmarried mothers sent to institutions here is believed to have been the highest in the world.

Many women have tried to find their children over the years, but to no avail. Adopted people also struggled to find their parents, or information about their early life.

These people were silenced for decades – and when the State finally said it would investigate the system via a Commission of Investigation, many survivors felt that their experiences were dismissed and disregarded.

The Commission

The latest episode of Redacted LivesThe Commission – explores the State inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes.

After years of being ignored and decades of their stories being swept under the carpet, many survivors felt as though the Commission was a chance for Irish society to put their experiences under the microscope and find out what truly happened in these institutions.

The Commission examined 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes – a sample of the overall number of institutions in Ireland – which operated between 1922 and 1998.

It took years to wade through the tens of thousands of documents that were available, and interview hundreds of people. Often even just trying to find the evidence took time – as religious orders and local authorities were sometimes unable to locate crucial records.

The final report ran to almost 3,000 pages, and its findings were eagerly awaited by survivors, the Government, and members of the public alike.

But some survivors felt as though it fell short of offering the closure they badly needed, and the report didn’t come to the conclusions that many experts expected.

For example, the Commission said it found little evidence of issues such as forced adoption, forced incarceration and discrimination – despite personal testimony detailing this.

390x285-1-1-4 Lorcan O'Reilly / The Journal Lorcan O'Reilly / The Journal / The Journal

After the report was criticised, the Commission’s chairperson Justice Yvonne Murphy defended it, saying the document must be read in its entirety.

In a letter Justice Murphy sent to the Oireachtas Children’s Committee in June 2021, she wrote that a Commission of Investigation is legally required to be “independent in the performance of its functions”.

“It does not follow a popular or political narrative or agenda. It seeks to establish the truth as best it can. It reports independently on the facts that it has established during its investigation,” she stated.

Confidential Committee vs Investigation Committee

One element we examine in this episode is the manner in which evidence was gathered by the Commission – something that only became fully clear after the final report was published.

The Commission heard people’s testimonies via two Committees: the Investigation Committee and the Confidential Committee.

The Investigation Committee was similar to a court hearing: Anyone choosing this route had to swear the evidence was true, and all claims were questioned in a rigorous manner.

The Confidential Committee was more relaxed: survivors were told it would offer them a chance to share their story in a “sympathetic atmosphere by experienced people”. It also offered guaranteed anonymity, a hugely appealing prospect for people sharing stories that, in many cases, they had kept largely secret for most of their lives.

Since the Commission’s final report was published in January 2021, many survivors have come forward to say they thought the Confidential Committee was the only way to give evidence.

When they applied to take part in the Commission, they said they were directed to this committee, and did not know that another committee even existed.

Some witnesses did know there were two different committees, but believed that their evidence would be given the same weight – regardless of which committee they spoke to.

This isn’t an issue that only emerged after the report’s publication: As far back as 2016, the Clann Project – a group that advocates on behalf of survivors – raised concerns about the fact most people were being automatically directed to the Confidential Committee.

Speaking in this episode, Dr Maeve O’Rourke, a human rights lawyer and co-director of Clann, said that survivors should have been informed there were two different committees.

If they were given the opportunity to choose which one they wanted to attend, this could have resulted in a report containing very different findings, she noted.

We were really concerned that people were being funnelled, essentially, into the Confidential Committee, because it was very clear to us that the Investigation Committee was the one that had the power to make adverse findings against identifiable institutions or individuals – that much can be gleaned from the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004.

“So it was very important that every single person who wished to have their evidence challenged – because that is the nature of the Investigation Committee – would have the opportunity to go and give their evidence fully…

“So we found that absolutely problematic. This is such a serious subject matter. The Commission’s findings were going to have enormous implications for justice and redress for people.

“And to not actually give the people concerned full information, in order that they could give their full, free and informed consent to participate was just appalling practice, in my view,” O’Rourke said.

Find out more in episode four.

Redacted Lives was created by the award-winning team of News Correspondent Órla Ryan, who has written extensively about mother and baby homes, producer Nicky Ryan, from the critically-acclaimed Stardust podcast, and executive producer Sinéad O’Carroll.

New episodes will be released every Thursday. Subscribe to the series wherever you get your podcasts.

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If you passed through a mother and baby home or another institution and want to share your story, you can contact us in confidence by emailing redactedlives@thejournal.ie.

Redacted Lives is presented by Órla Ryan and produced by Nicky Ryan. Sineád O’Carroll is the executive producer.

Daragh Brophy and Christine Bohan were production supervisors.

Taz Kelleher is our sound engineer, and design is by Lorcan O’Reilly.

With thanks to Laura Byrne, Susan Daly, Adrian Acosta, Carl Kinsella and Jonathan McCrea.

Author
TheJournal.ie team