But the atrocities did not just play out in Tuam. The 18 homes in Tuesday’s report spanned the country, from central Dublin to remote communities in the far northwest of Ireland and were run by different groups of Roman Catholic nuns.
The report, which looked into reports of unethical vaccine trials, reports of abuse and appalling conditions at the home, detailed how 56,000 unmarried mothers and about 57,000 children came through the homes investigated by the commission during a 76-year period. It attempted to differentiate between the earliest years of the home and those that came later.
“In the years before 1960 mother and baby homes did not save the lives of ‘illegitimate’ children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival,” the report said. But while the executive summary noted that the women and children “should not have been in the institutions” it said there was “no evidence of the sort of gross abuse that occurred in industrial schools.”
The homes were just one part of a larger system that exploited and suppressed some of the country’s most vulnerable women and girls, as evidenced in the notorious institutions known as the Magdalen Laundries, underpinned by an Irish society that stigmatized unwed mothers. Considered “fallen women,” they were relegated to the fringes, and even when they were not confined to Mother and Baby Homes — were often pressured into giving up their newborns, often in shadowy adoptions. The church facilitated the adoption of some of those children with American families.
Philomena Lee, perhaps one of the best known survivors of the Mother and Baby Homes — after an award winning book and a film told the story of her search for a son she was forced to give up for adoption — said she had waited decades for this moment.
In a statement issued Sunday, she described a pregnancy met with “horror” that saw her shuttled away to Sean Ross Abbey, a Mother and Baby Home in County Tipperary. Her son, Anthony, was forcibly taken from her and sent for adoption in America. By the time she discovered her son’s identity — he grew up as Michael Hess, a legal aide in the Bush and Reagan administrations — he had already died.
She said the secrecy around the commission’s investigation and final report had only deepened the pain for many of the survivors, and “that the Irish state, having breached so many of their human rights, seeks to prevent them from knowing the truth about their early lives.”