Driving home from work, the 4.30 news headlines came on BBC Radio 6. The lead story was the apology made by Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin to the victims of the Mother and Baby Homes, the last of which only closed in the 1990s.
The apology comes too late for those who suffered, far too late. The Mother and Baby homes are an unforgivable piece of history, a catalogue of vile abuses of human rights. Yet even in the times they existed, they were recognized to be harsh and cruel places.
Coming from Co Laois, Bill was born in 1918, a mechanic from a farming family, he lived part of his life in Monaincha, an area on the border of Co Laois and Co Tipperary. Bill lived into his hundredth year, his capacity for remembering and the clarity of his recall of the history of the local community was unrivalled among anyone whom I knew.
Near Monaincha was Sean Ross Abbey, an institution best known from the story of Philomena Lee. It was a story told in Martin Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty Year Search and in the film Philomena starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. Sean Ross Abbey is reached via a minor road off of the road that would have been the main route from Dublin to Limerick, take a wrong turning at a fork in the road, and you will find yourself heading for Monaincha.
One afternoon as we sat in the warmth of his kitchen, there was one of the silences that would announce a story recalling an incident or a moment or a place. “Do you know,” he said, “sometimes the girls heading to Sean Ross would end up at our place. Perhaps they had got off of the bus and just taken a wrong turning. Perhaps they had wanted to get away. I don’t know.” He looked upwards.
The moment still remains. No-one would have persuaded Bill that the girls were heading for a life other than one of misery and violence. Bill could have done little to change things, yet still recounted with obvious pain the girls being given the directions to find their way to Sean Ross Abbey.
There were people who could have changed things, there were people who could have declared that the inhumane treatment of young women was unacceptable in a civilised society. But they didn’t.
While a few homes existed before independence, the overwhelming majority were established during the early years of the new state. The successive governments of the Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fail governments in the 1920s and 1930s created a theocracy at the behest of the Roman Catholic Church. The decades of abuse of human rights arose from an abdication of responsibility by politicians.
If Micheal Martin recognizes the wrongdoing of the Irish state, he introduce a complete separation of church and state and forever exclude the influence of a sexist and homophobic institution that has never made more than a token apology.