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'We were a pure Catholic nation - and anyone who challenged that in any way was punished'

The latest episode of Redacted Lives, The Journal’s new podcast, explores the power nexus between Church and State in Ireland.

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The second episode of Redacted Lives, a new podcast series about mother and baby homes, was released by The Journal this week. The six-part documentary series explores the experiences of people who passed through the system.

Children born into these institutions were usually adopted or sent to industrial schools – often without their mother’s consent.

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

Redacted Lives gives these people the chance to tell the real story of mother and baby homes, and explores how the State continues to deny survivors access to information, proper redress and ownership of their true identities.

THROUGHOUT THE 20TH century, the Catholic Church exerted huge control over almost every aspect of people’s lives in Ireland.

Becoming pregnant outside marriage was viewed as one of the most shameful things a person could do.

Women and girls who found themselves in this situation were hidden away. Many of their children were, in turn, sent to industrial schools.

In some families, more than one generation spent time in a mother and baby home, county home, industrial school or Magdalene laundry.

But how did this system of incarceration come to exist? And why was it allowed to flourish for so long?

river Éamon De Valera on the steps of No 10 Downing Street, London, in 1932 Source: PA Images

Catriona Crowe, former Head of Special Projects at the National Archives, explains that in order to examine this, one must analyse the “power nexus” that existed between the Catholic Church and the State after Ireland gained independence from Britain.

That’s one of the topics explored in High Walls, the latest episode of Redacted Lives.

In this episode, Crowe notes that Ireland was “an overwhelmingly Catholic country” in the 20th century.

A lot of the population absolutely believed in the Catholic Church as the arbiter of moral value in society… If your daughter got pregnant outside marriage it was likely her name would be read off the altar in the local church.

“And there was a huge network of congregations and parish priests and bishops, all combining together to support and encourage the mother and baby homes to be the place of so-called refuge for women and girls who were pregnant outside marriage.

“No attention was paid, for example, to rape cases or any of that – that wasn’t considered to be important. We have evidence of girls as young as 13 having been raped and becoming pregnant – that was not seen as significant,” Crowe says.

The Pope and the Constitution

Also in this episode, Caelainn Hogan, author of Republic of Shame, states that many people in positions of power in the newly-founded Free State wanted Ireland to be “a pure, Catholic nation”.

“There was a huge amount of control enforced over women and girls and their bodies and their sexuality. And it was a way that the State asserted itself. It had this ideal of itself as a Catholic nation.

We have to remember that [Éamon] de Valera tried to have the Constitution approved by the pope at one stage.

“This was the ideal – that we were a pure Catholic nation. And anyone who went outside of that ideal or challenged it in any way, who challenged the law and doctrine and teachings of the Church, were hidden away, were punished, were incarcerated,” Hogan told us.

In April 1937, Joseph P Walshe, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, was sent to the Vatican to seek papal approval for the draft Constitution.

Ultimately, Pope Pius XI refused to endorse the Irish Constitution, as the document did not formally recognise the Catholic Church as the only ‘true’ church.

A number of historical records published by UCD Archives in 2005 give some insights into that trip.

In a memo sent by Walshe to de Valera (who was the Taoiseach at the time), probably on or after 20 April, following his interview with the Secretary of State Cardinal Pacelli – but before the Cardinal’s meeting with the Pope – Walshe wrote:

“Cardinal’s attitude towards general question is that Vatican could only approve completely if Church recognised by State because it is Church favoured by Our Lord. Explained all reasons why this absolutely impossible. They will…give blessing privately. Pacelli gratified by title as set out by you…shall telegraph tomorrow.”

In High Walls, Crowe goes on to note that the mass incarceration of women and children in mother and baby homes, county homes, industrial schools and Magdalene Laundries represents “a very dark period in Irish modern history”.

“It’s precisely, in a way, I think, why people get tired of all of this, because there is a sense of consciousness of a kind of guilt in people who look back at it, many of whom knew.

“Every town had a tall building with high walls around it, or many did… People knew what was going on and they still did nothing, or very few did anything about it.”

New episodes of Redacted Lives 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 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.

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.

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in these episodes, you can contact the Samaritans by calling 116 123.

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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