The Irish state has done its fair share of apologising in recent years. In 1999, the then-taoiseach Bertie Ahern apologised to the victims of abuse by religious state-run institutions. Ten years and a report into institutional abuse later, his successor, Brian Cowen, apologised again.
In 2013, a visibly emotional Enda Kenny beat his breast about the horrors of the Magdalene laundries, where thousands of women were incarcerated and suffered abuse. In 2019, the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, twice donned the state’s sackcloth-and-ash, first for the sexual abuse of children in day schools and then for the lies told to more than 1,000 women in a cervical screening scandal.
Two weeks ago it was taoiseach Micheál Martin’s turn, and this time he was apologising to the thousands of women and children who’d passed through 14 mother and baby homes and four state-run county homes; their treatment the product of a “stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture”. He said this was the “moment to recognise the profound failure of empathy, understanding and basic humanity over a very lengthy period”.
Among the many the taoiseach was apologising to was me and my birth mother, Jane. Pregnant at 19 and victimised by what Martin called “the profound failure of empathy, understanding and basic humanity over a very lengthy period”, Jane arrived at the doors of St Patrick’s mother and baby home in Dublin in January 1968, the largest such home in the country, and signed a paper declaring that she wanted to put her unborn baby up for adoption.
Four months later, I was born; two days after that, Jane changed her mind and said she wanted to keep me. Too late, they said, you signed the papers and that was that. She stayed for three more months but was not allowed any meaningful contact with me. It was better that way, they said.
It was also a lie. A terrible, life-altering lie. The 1952 Adoption Act specifies that consent is not valid “unless it is given after the child has attained the age of six months”.
By the late summer of 1968, I was adopted. Jane would never have any other children. It would be 35 years before we saw each other again, the reunion prompted by Jane and brokered by the adoption agency, who had us exchange letters for several months before arranging a meeting. In the months and years that followed we struggled to tell each other our respective stories – and to reconcile the fact that the course of our lives was determined by a lie.
In her most vulnerable moment, Jane was denied the dignity of the truth. Whatever compassion she received came wrapped in a grotesque ideology masquerading as a moral code, one which treated vulnerable girls as guilty of an intolerable sin and entirely deserving of rebuke.
In the decades before I was born, that sin was compounded further by a perverse belief that because a girl had become pregnant out of wedlock, she passed the seed of her transgression on to her progeny, condemning them in turn to a life of depravity. The progressive notes of the 1960s had altered the moral mood music somewhat, but Jane and all the other girls in St Patrick’s and beyond were still sinners – to be pitied perhaps, but also to be denied agency and choice.
For an apology to carry any weight, it must come with a commitment to never again repeat the terrible crimes that have led five successive prime ministers to rise to their feet in Dáil Éireann and ask the country for forgiveness.
Martin spoke of a “profound generational wrong” and acknowledged that it is the “the duty of a republic to be willing to hold itself to account. To be willing to confront hard truths and accept parts of our history which are deeply uncomfortable.”
The hard truth is that the past century of Irish history has a through line of cruelty and callousness against the innocent, the poor, the marginalised and the pregnant, perpetrated by a state and its agencies and tolerated by a society infected with a stifling, craven Catholicism that brooked no compromise.
Hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people passed through the industrial schools, Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes, their suffering rationalised by a moral barbarism that treated them as wicked, defective impediments to the march of a new nation with plenty of other growing pains.
Yet, for all the purposeful strides Ireland has unquestionably made toward greater tolerance in recent decades, that through line still exists, and we are not entirely removed from the stench of what Kenny described in 2009 as the “cruel pitiless Ireland distinctly lacking in a quality of mercy”.
It festers in another form in direct provision, the purgatorial system Ireland uses to process asylum seekers, primarily people of colour. Established in 1999 – three years after the last of the Magdalene laundries closed and only a year after the last mother and baby home shut its doors – this network of privately run, for-profit accommodation centres has seen in excess of 60,000 people pass through an apparatus described in 2020 by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission as a “severe violation of human rights”. Even the Irish president, Michael D Higgins, has criticised the system as “totally unsatisfactory in every aspect”.
Tales of overcrowding, abuse, sexual harassment, racism and depression continually leak into the public domain, as well as the fear that if anyone in the system were to speak out against any hardship it might lead them to be transferred to a less desirable location or even hurt their asylum claim.
The fear of a discipline arbitrarily applied echoes the constant terror felt by those in previous institutions and laundries, their humanity diminished by a system designed to “other” them. It is the same with asylum seekers, whose existence behind the walls of direct provision is regularly ignored or dismissed without empathy.
A common refrain around the mother and baby homes report is, how could we let this happen? The answer is both complex and painfully simple. Yes, it’s all about history and the church and state power structures and systemic misogyny. But it’s also because we allowed a vulnerable section of society to be dehumanised.
The country did it with the Magdalene laundries and the industrial schools. We’re doing it with direct provision. The time to fix it is now: otherwise, in years to come, we will see yet another taoiseach make yet another apology.
• Fionn Davenport is the editor of the Irish Travel News Network. He is currently based in Manchester