Some thoughts at the dismal emerging story from Tuam

Whenever a society attempts to impose without exception an impossible abstraction on fallible human beings, such cruelty will always be necessary.

Andrew Sullivan on the Tuam Mother and Baby home…

Now we understand that the high mortality rates at Tuam may have been the norm for such homes across the post independence state. A few years back similarly high rates at the evangelical Protestant Bethany Homes were also reported in detail.

There was (to our modern eyes) a remarkable consensus on the pretty awful way unwed mothers should be treated. Shane Harrison reported one such remembered experience:

“I grew up with starvation, was treated more or less as a dog,” he said.

“I was that hungry that I remember going into a farmer’s field and picking spuds so that we could have a meal and putting the roots back in. Well-off people in the area knew the state we were in but they walked around as if it never happened.”

Tuam closed in 1960 or 61, around about the time contraception became available in the UK. Although it didn’t arrive in the Republic till much later, it was this technological change that killed the force of the abstraction Sullivan cites above rather than any spiritual sea change.

It puts me in mind of the “escapee” Larkin describes in High Windows…

That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds

In Minnesota in all such homes they had a statutory regulation (Three Month Nursing Regulation) that mothers should be allowed to feed their babies up until three months. In Ireland and elsewhere – presumably because many of the babies were expected to become subject to compulsory adoption – there seems to have been an enforced separation during that time to prevent maternal bonds growing that would later become problematic.

Its not hard to see with modern eyes just what a major health risk that must have posed with the missing the anti bodies that would have come down to them with their mothers milk.

The mass graves are another troubling aspect of the story, particularly given that they were in the care of religious orders. Two thoughts occur:

– one, the Irish state was founded just two generations after the famine, which itself was, in part, a major public health scandal. Within months of the first reports of typhus, there are also reports of reusable coffins with a trap door at the bottom, and then within relatively short order the complete abandonment of any ceremony whatsoever for the dead.

– two, there seems to have been a real unwillingness within the realm of public policy to handle, sensibly and rationally, matters which carry serious moral heft, leaving vulnerable individuals to the joint mercies of chance and circumstance. More recently the Savita Halappanavar case highlighted the sort of practical problems that can be generated by unresolved moral ambivalence within the legislature.

It doesn’t help that an impoverished Irish free State had to lean so heavily on religious institutions to provide most of health and social care infrastructure. Religious institutions which fought tooth and nail against the state’s attempts at reform in this area from the early 1950s on.

That’s not to take anything from the stark cruelty of feeding of the peculiarly rigid abstraction at Tuam or elsewhere . But it seems to me there is much more to this story than the needful channelling of rage at the wickedness of ‘abstraction’ itself.

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