Why blame the nuns?

Margaret Rossiter
In the days preceding Valentine’s Day, and in a Clonmel shop-window, I saw a display of pink (paper) hearts combined with packets of contraceptives. The symbiosis of the celebration of the day, and the window-display, does not require any further elaboration.

In the days preceding Valentine’s Day, and in a Clonmel shop-window, I saw a display of pink (paper) hearts combined with packets of contraceptives. The symbiosis of the celebration of the day, and the window-display, does not require any further elaboration.

When I went home, and during my after-lunch siesta, I listened to a popular radio progamme, to which listeners contributed. In the immediate aftermath of the McAleese report on the Magdalene laundries, contributors spoke of personal experiences and blighted lives and lost opportunities. But, in the predictable way of such programmes, the laundries and the so-called mother-and-baby homes, became intertwined. And radio producers, never missing an opportunity to generate a climate of sensationalism, did nothing to separate the two. Both institutions, after all, were operated by religious sisters, and now is a time for a bit of bashing the nuns.

The McAleese report stated that there was no record of babies having been born in the laundries, but that a very small number of young women came to the laundries from mother-and-baby homes, because they had no place else to go. In the absence of direct evidence, that was the assumption.

Somebody has written (and I think it was GK Chesterton) that it was surprising the distinctly different view one could get of Big Ben in London if one stood on one’s head to look at it. Viewing the past, from the present, does not necessarily give a true picture. A retrospective on the shame of unmarried motherhood and today’s socially accepted, laissez faire, sexual norms of pink paper hearts and contraceptives, is very difficult to reconcile, especially for smart modern-day young media-people.

Can they be blamed if they have no concept of that shame. When a Sean O’Casey character told her friend that her daughter was “in trouble,” the shocked friend asked if she was “in the family way.” The relief was tangible when the mother said that “the trouble” was that daughter had been diagnosed by the doctor as having “consumption.” The almost certain death, at that time, from tuberculoisis was respectable. Out-of-wedlock (as it was called) pregnancy was not.

The Victorian novel’s depiction of the young pregnant girl being thrown out of her home during a snowstorm, may seem, today, as exaggerated imagery, but the facts were that very often she had to leave her home. She was an embarrassment to her family and a source of gossip to her neighbours. If she had not been deserted by the father of the baby, she could be forced into a “shotgun,” and often very unhappy, marriage. As the Taoiseach said, Ireland, for much of its past, could be a harsh and uncompromising place. It could be especially so for women. As we now know, some of these pregnancies in young girls orignated in abuse, rape and sometimes incest.

To meet the desperate needs of generations of women who found themselves in such crises, some of the women’s religious orders founded mother-and-baby homes. If one were to uncritically accept the conclusions of some of the modern media, these homes were cold, cruel, judgemental places, from which babies were “farmed out” (or even sold!) to Americans.

A retired lay nurse/midwife, who actually served in one of these homes, felt compelled to make her contribution in order to bring some balance into the content of a near hysterical radio programme.

In her experience, the young women were treated with respect and kindness. They were given expert post and ante-natal treatment, with the best available consultants. Yes, there was secrecy, but that was what they wanted. Sometimes, they were given a pseudonym, again because they did not want their real names circulated. They wanted anonymity.

There could be a restriction on visitors, at the discretion of the women, again to preserve the privacy of all. Babies were taken to America for adoption, but only with the consent of the mothers, because in the circumstances of the time, they could not take them home to their families.

Some of these young women did come back again to their family homes. Some emigrated. A few, according to the McAleese report, went to the laundries, where, on average, they stayed for about seven months. The silent heartbreak suffered by all, at permanent separation from their babies, can only be imagined.

Times change. The content of the shop-window display underlined the extent of that change. But the current retrospective examination of the mother-and-baby homes and the Magdalene laundies, raises many questions. The stigmatisation of women did not descend from outer space. It was nurtured within families, in streets, in towns, in gossip, in desertion and in society. Oppobrium and humiliation became the societal norm.

So, why now are we seeking scapegoats for the harsh and uncompromising attitudes of a time and a place? Why are we blaming the nuns?