The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes report has returned the spotlight to the darkest recesses of the unholy alliance between Church and State after independence, which treated the most vulnerable and downtrodden in society with contempt and abject cruelty.
In what was arguably a theocracy in all but name, the partnership ensured that an undemocratic Church, with a mandate only from God and the Pope, played a pivotal role in maintaining a strict moral code even if that trampled on basic human rights.
There was no room for the romantic ideals and lofty aspirations expressed by the socialists and poets who led the 1916 Rebellion.
Hopes of social progress in the new State were suppressed for fear that they might undermine the religious code – and challenge the power of government.
The relationship between Church and State was mutually beneficial. Paying the Church to deal with social problems was an easy option for political leaders even if it created glorified gulags of misery – mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries, industrial and reformatory schools.
By hiding those classed as dysfunctional behind the walls of religious-run institutions, the State could project the veneer of a peaceful, secure and law-abiding society.
Judging by the crime figures over the decades up to 1967 – when the phenomenon of serious organised crime first emerged – crime rates were some of the lowest in the world.
Official figures showed the numbers incarcerated in prisons and reformatories for young offenders was persistently low, and during the 1950s there was discussion in Government about the prospect of closing prisons.
In 1956 the daily average prison/ reformatory population was 13.9 per 100,000 of population with a total of 574 persons imprisoned in that year – 512 of whom were male. In the same year the numbers incarcerated in institutions such as industrial schools, mental asylums and the mother and baby homes, was a staggering 29,308 – or one in 100 Irish citizens.
The detail in this week’s report on mother and baby homes this week was shocking, but at this stage not unexpected.
In 2009 the Ryan Report on the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA) at State institutions since the 1930s, found that the entire industrial/ reform school system “treated children more like prison inmates and slaves than people with legal rights and human potential” where sexual, physical and psychological abuse were rampant.
The report concluded the State had little enthusiasm for tackling the sins of the religious.
Even back in 1930, the disturbing levels of rape, sex abuse of minors and infanticide were so prevalent in Irish society that the Government established the Carrigan Committee to investigate and recommend changes in legislation and social policy.
That commission examined illegitimacy, the age of consent, homosexuality (a crime until 1993), child sexual abuse, rape and prostitution.
The Garda Commissioner of the day, Eoin O’Duffy, told the commission that the sexual abuse of girls “under 15, and even under 13 and under 11” was alarming.
In his submission he said most of the cases brought before the courts had been heard of “accidentally by the Garda, and are very rarely the result of a direct complaint”.
The Carrigan Commission made 21 recommendations to give greater legal protection to women and children.
But it was doomed to the dustbin for fear it would cast negative light on the true standard of morality pertaining in the country at the time.
Another example of how the Church and State kept awkward questions at bay was the reception for the 1967 documentary The Rocky Road to Dublin by Dublin-born journalist Peter Lennon.
He returned from his home in France to pose an unwelcome question in the opening sequence: “What do you do with your revolution once you’ve got it?”
Lennon argued that the country of his birth had been stultified by a combination of religious oppression and cultural isolation. He described the Republic as “a country with its future in the hands of people who think in terms of the past”.
Seán Ó Faoláin gave a brutally honest assessment of the new Republic, his words echoing through the pages of the mother and baby home report.
“The society that actually grew up [since independence] was a society of urbanised peasants; a society that was without moral courage, constantly observing a self-interested silence; never speaking in moments of crisis; a constant alliance with a completely obdurantist, repressive, regressive, and uncultivated church.
“The result of all this was that ’32, like ’22, simply spawned a society utterly alien to the Republic. It went on and has gone on, a society in which there are blatant inequalities and in which the whole spirit of 1916 has been lost.
“If those 16 men of ’16, before the bullet crashed into them and before the rope tightened on their neck, if they had seen the kind of Ireland that would come out of their sacrifice, they would have felt their efforts had been betrayed and their sacrifice in vain.”
Although the documentary could not be banned by the censor, as it had no sexual content, the Government still managed to have it barred from cinemas and national television.
The people of Ireland did not get to view The Rocky Road to Dublin until almost 40 years later. The truth drips slowly.
Source: Irish News