An ageing memorial at the Bessborough Mother and Child Home cemetery in Cork. (Picture: Michael MacSweeney/Provision)

The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation’s final report has added hurt to hurt, pain to pain, and cruel insult to monstrous injury, and it cannot be allowed to stand as our final response to Ireland’s original sin of misogyny.

Joe Duffy has had many finest hours over his long career, but survivors of mother and baby homes might well argue that in the five days of last week, Joe showed them more empathy, more kindness, and more understanding on RTÉ Radio 1’s Liveline than was immediately obvious in their treatment by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation over the last five years.

As former Labour senator Máiría Cahill put it, referencing the report’s €12 million price tag, “Joe Duffy’s programme could have been transcribed this week and a better report written (although I found the historical timeline fascinating). 12 million Euro like.”

The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation’s final report landed last Tuesday, having been partially leaked to the Sunday Independent the previous weekend. Across the country, people my age and younger and older struggled with a bitty, unwieldly, and user-unfriendly online version of the 3,000-page report. You click the link, which brings you to the chapter page, and you click the chapter and that invites you to download a PDF, and then you hope your computer, and/or your broadband won’t crash.

Some survivors, lacking broadband, or computer skills, were left to the kindness of family and friends. My friend Sheila O’Byrne, whose baby was taken from her in St Patrick’s mother and baby home on Dublin’s Navan Road in 1977, told me a friend of hers showed her pages of the report on their phone, which Sheila tried to read through her kitchen window.

In Cabra, 82-year-old Rose McKinney, who was sent twice to the Tuam Home, the first time when she was pregnant at 14, was only able to read sections of the report because Republic of Shame author Caeainn Hogan brought her laptop – rubbed down with hand sanitiser – around to Rose’s garden on a cold afternoon.

A former cabinet minister said to me: “Jesus Christ, ten senior politicians were given that report before Christmas, and they’ve had all this time to plan their response, and not one of them thought ‘How will we get a hard copy into the hands of survivors?’

“For f**k’s sake, the country is going to be in hock from here to Judgement Day thanks to Covid-19 anyway, so did they think anyone would object if Roderic O’Gorman [the Minister for Children, whose department published the report] couriered copies to each and every survivor all over the country?”

The seeming lack of consideration shown to survivors in the release of the report is on the Government. The seeming lack of consideration shown to survivors in the report itself must either be on the terms of reference or on the report itself, and given that the commissioners have refused point blank to deign to come out and answer questions, well, answers on a postcard please.

For my part, I can’t let go of the fact that the report’s language has been so hurtful (presumably accidentally) to survivors. The mantra of “There is no evidence”, repeated over and over, completely ignores the testimony of survivors, and tells them – all over again – you don’t matter and we don’t care.

There’s a cruelty to the report’s cold, legalistic approach which is – at best – completely lacking in empathy, and which – at worst – flatly accuses survivors of actually being wrong in their own recollections of their lived experiences.

The suggestion in the report that women were not asked in the mother and baby homes to do anything they wouldn’t have done at home is, frankly, beyond offensive. In Bessborough, pregnant women and girls were forced, on their hands and knees, to trim the sprawling lawns using nail clippers. At home, what parent in their right mind would do that to their daughter?

And to say, as the report does, that these institutions gave pregnant women and girls “refuge” is laughable. A friend of mine, who was in Bessborough in the 1980s, told me: “You could never be seen to stop working. You couldn’t stand still, let alone sit down. If you were seen to be resting, you’d be shouted at, or walloped, and work would be found for you.”

The claim that while women had little choice but to give up their babies, it wasn’t – presumably legally speaking – forced adoption, is utterly callous. If you don’t – or cannot – consent to giving up your baby, how is that not forced adoption? It is appalling that the report doesn’t seem, on first glance at least, to understand the concept of consent, especially given how many rape victims were incarcerated in those institutions.

If America was founded on its original sin of slavery, then surely Ireland was founded on its own original sin, a misogyny built on a prurient, sex-obsessed, Victorian version of Catholicism, an utter hatred of women and – if a child was born out of wedlock – an absolute loathing of children too.

Sheila O’Byrne, who is now spokesperson for survivor group Irish First Mothers, was a complete innocent when she went to St Patrick’s mother and baby on the Navan Road in 1976.  Pregnant at 19 with a child of “mixed race”, Sheila was good with children, and she was put in charge of the dying babies in the so-called “rejects ward”. Because she stood up for one of the other mothers, Sheila was beaten savagely by one of the nuns.

“She kept hitting my head off the wall, and I was pumping blood,” Sheila told RTÉ’s Claire Byrne this week, in an example of the physical abuse of which the commission said it could find “no evidence”. Sheila also endured 39 hours of labour, without any pain relief, (“I was butchered”, she says,) at the end of which she wasn’t even allowed hold her baby.  

When it came time to baptise Sheila’s baby, she says: “The priest said, ‘Well, Sheila, if you haven’t got money, there’s other ways we can sort this out.’ And he reached over and he touched my left breast. You’re alright, Father, I have the money. My daddy gave me the christening money. I’m paying in full.” That seems a clear case of the type of sexual abuse of which the commission said it had “no evidence”.

Marched up the stairs of the adoption society, Sheila was told she had no choice but to give up her beloved baby. Would that be the sort of forced adoption for which the commission said it found “no evidence”?

When the Mother and Baby Home Report claims there is “no evidence” of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or forced adoption, or vaccine trials, it insults, demeans, and denies survivors like Sheila all over again. It is, despite what were no doubt the good intentions of its authors, an unforgiveable document.

In the Seanad yesterday, Seanad Leader and Fine Gael senator Regina Doherty proposed that the commission’s final report could not stand as Ireland’s last word on mother and baby homes, suggesting that the executive summary of the report have appended to it a “survivors’ summary” and that the report be accompanied – and contradicted – on the official record by transcripts of the testimony of any survivor who wishes to give evidence.

That would be a start.

Given that this story began in 2014 with 796 babies left in a disused Victorian sewerage system in Tuam, and given that we now know that at least 9,000 children are missing, it was heartening to hear Senator Doherty call on her Government to give a clear commitment to a timeline regarding abuse reparations and regarding legislation allowing adopted people to access their birth records, and a guarantee that the Government will commit to excavations, or test excavations, on the sites of former mother and baby homes.

In a very welcome development, Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman told the Seanad that he was listening, and he wanted to do everything he could to help survivors. He added then a contradiction of the report, one which will mean the world to so many survivors.

“Women had absolutely no choice, absolutely no choice, but to give up their children for adoption,” he said, adding again: “Absolutely no choice.”

This week saw Joe Duffy return again to the Mother and Baby Home report, and gently, respectfully, and devastatingly, eviscerate it with callers, picking apart its inconsistencies, its harsh, legalistic language, and its lack of any obvious human heart.

Since its launch in 1985, initially hosted by the late Marian Finucane, and by Duffy since 1999, Liveline has shown empathy, respect and understanding to survivors, and given them a platform and a voice, shaping the public discourse, and shifting public opinion in favour of survivors, and challenging Ireland’s original sin.

If only the same could be said for the commission.