The Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, which documented disproportionate incidences of deaths and disease in Irish mother and baby homes between 1922 and 1998, was published this week. The commission was set up in 2015 after the discovery of around eight hundred unmarked burial plots on the site of the former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway. It found that around nine thousand children died in the eighteen homes under investigation. The mortality rate, around 15 per cent, was almost twice what it was for ‘illegitimate’ children in wider society. The children died from respiratory infections and gastroenteritis, from diphtheria and typhoid. They died in homes that were overcrowded, where there were large, shared dormitories and nurseries, where privacy was impossible, where cots were crammed together, sometimes only a foot apart.
Every June since 2014, campaigners have held a vigil at the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home on the outskirts of Cork city. They gather around a semi-ruined folly at the back of the nuns’ small graveyard, with its neat rows of crosses, and hang balloons, light tealights, sing songs, read out poetry. There are no marked graves for the children who died at Bessborough. A plaque remembers ‘all babies who died before or shortly after birth’.
In 1979, as he celebrated a Youth Mass at Ballybrit Racecourse, Co. Galway, Pope John Paul II told the young people of Ireland that he loved them. It was a significant moment, and, for a time, it emboldened an authoritarian Irish Catholic Church. It was also the beginning of the end.
Father Brian McKevitt delivered the homily at Knock Basilica in County Mayo on Sunday. The service was billed as an All Ireland Act of Reparation, a communal act of repentance on behalf of those of us who voted Yes in the referendum on 25 May. Ireland, Fr McKevitt said, has become a ‘pro-choice’ society, where people have decided that either God does not exist or is irrelevant, and are making their own decisions about what is right or wrong. ‘I will go to Mass on Sunday, if I choose,’ he said. ‘I will stay with my spouse, if I choose. I will look after my children, if I choose. I will marry a person of the same sex, if I choose. I will even end the life of an unborn child, if I choose.’