It seems that no world region has a great historical track record for its treatment of unwed mothers, but a rather shocking finding in Ireland reveals that country’s unique brand of abhorrent treatment. A historian doing research on a former home for unwed mothers was given more than she bargained for after requesting death records from the institution. The result: she learned that between 1925 and 1961, “the Home” buried 796 children—all heaped unceremoniously into a mass unmarked grave. Well, a septic tank to be precise. The researcher verified that the bones still reside in this undignified resting place.
Horrific History of the “Home”
Unwed mothers who resided at the Home in County Galway were treated like prisoners to atone for their sexcapades (although rape was reportedly also a prevalent problem in this era in Ireland). In exchange for lodging at the nun-run institution—since their families wanted them whisked away in their shameful states—the women were assigned new names, given uniforms and made to work for free, sometimes for years (we can only assume the fathers were meanwhile living it up in local pubs).
But bad as it sounded for the mothers, apparently it was much worse for many of their children. Listed causes of death were often from conditions associated with neglect, like malnutrition, stomach flu, tuberculosis and pneumonia. This sad state of affairs is in keeping with the general lot of Irish children born out of wedlock in this era: in the 1930s, they suffered a staggering death rate of 25%—similar to child mortality rates of the dour 1600s.
Police are currently looking into this grisly scene of apparent child abuse, and a relative of a child who resided at the Home has filed a missing person’s report, which could result in a total excavation of the site. Are there other chilling discoveries lying in wait in that puritanical septic tank of yore?
Ireland’s Catholic Bedfellow
If nothing else, we can see this story as yet another revelation of hypocritical and sexist religious stances. These women were legally prevented from using birth control or having abortions—you know, because sex for any reason other than procreation is sinful—but the Catholic institution in charge had so little regard for the lives of the bonafide-birthed children, that they were allowed to suffer and die in mass numbers (not to mention the abusive fate suffered if they reached school-age) .
Catholic-affiliated Ireland still has a long way to go in the arena of reproductive rights: contraception was illegal for sale in Ireland until 1985, and abortion is still against the law outside saving the life of the mother (a hard-won exception granted only last year).
So let’s do this Ireland: let’s rectify the wrongs of the past, get out of the Dark Ages and finally civically separate from Catholicism. Granting women full reproductive rights is a pretty low bar, and we think you can do it! And an apology or two wouldn’t hurt, either.