Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Imagine for a moment, that I were to start writing and campaigning about obesity and its effects upon children.

The usual trolls would descend, claiming this to be somehow religiously motivated, would take some obscure Levitical verse as being my motivation and bang on that I believe in the ludicrously outdated notion of sin, in this particular case, gluttony. No doubt I’d also be accused of lacking compassion for the overweight and made to take responsibility for any fat person who felt ashamed, was driven to diet or who suffered from any bullying or mental health difficulties.

There may be no religious conviction underpinning the current crusade against obesity and sugar in particular, which is rapidly replacing tobacco as the next thing which must be banned or regulated, but certain health professionals are pursuing the cause of weight and obesity with a zeal which would put Torquemada to shame.

So, hot off the back of the mooted ‘sugar tax’, the normally sensible Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, Chairman of the select Health committe, appeared on Good Morning Britain to state that all primary school children ought to be weighed in school, a call which was promptly reinforced by Britain’s loudest self-proclaimed voice of reason, Katie Hopkins.

No-one is denying that obesity or sugar is bad for us, or that being overweight can have a negative impact upon health. According to the World Health Organisation, even being slightly overweight can increase the risk of health problems. And by and large we know that being overweight is a preventable condition, we all need to take more care over what we eat and increase the amount of exercise we take. Fewer saturated fats, less sugar and thirty minutes of regular moderate activity every day. Simples!

Except it isn’t. We know that people have a complex often psychologically unhealthy relationship with food, and that something which sounds so straightforward often isn’t. We also know that metabolisms differ and that in some of cases people really are unable to shed weight easily, for a variety of medical reasons and conditions. To attribute a weight problem to ignorance,  laziness or some kind of psychiatric disorder is a glib attitude of the smug.

The idea of weighing children in school is a horrifying one, which will set them up for a lifetime of negative body image issues, overt paranoia about weight and creates fertile ground for a culture of bullying, which as most parents will know, teenagers do not need any encouragement with. I have bitter experience of this, though never technically overweight, I came in at the top end of the scale, and the regular weigh-ins were a form of torture, along with the inevitable playground comparisons and competition. The process was equally traumatic for those at the lower end of the spectrum. It’s no surprise that almost all of my school friends  struggled with eating disorders and food issues at some point in their lives.

This is no longer the feminist issue perhaps it would have been a generation ago, although people of a certain age will remember Roland from Grange Hill, demonstrating that overweight children is not a new phenomenon. A quarter of people affected by an eating disorder at a school age are boys.

seriesfive058

Clamping down on homophobic bullying in schools, telling children it’s okay for them to be exactly how they are, lacks sincerity and is undermined by measures which tell children precisely the opposite. You may not be able to help being gay, but to be fat or overweight is completely unacceptable and must be stamped out.

In many ways this current crusade about weight is linked to the culture of death. We are sending the message that your life is of more value and of a better quality if you are thin, whereas actually the stereotype of the fat happy person might actually have some truth to it, according to research, the obesity gene is linked to happiness.

If the state were to charge for contraception and abortions, there would be an outcry about how they were attempting to interfere with people’s personal lives, getting in the bedroom along with the usual ridiculous, hysterical and factually inaccurate rhetoric of poking about in women’s wombs. Acres of column inches would be devoted to how the state has no place as a moral guardian, attempting to dictate and impose moral values about how we should conduct our sex lives, the fact that they already do this in terms of nudging young women towards Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives, and men towards condoms, having escaped the attention of most.

Why is no-one questioning the ethics as to whether or not the state ought to be complicit in  moulding and encouraging its citizens into a homogenous size and shape? Is there really so much difference between this and the proscribed haircuts and clothes of the North Koreans, or is state intervention in our eating habits and sex lives a necessary and desirable trade-off  and inevitable consequence of the existence of the NHS? If we were all responsible for bearing the costs of our own health-care would the nation’s size still be seen as an urgent and pressing public health concern, which the government must instantly tackle?

One can’t help but wonder whether or not by advocating and supporting state intervention into eating habits, including the involvement of schools we are conceding yet more control of our lives and feeding a cycle of co-dependence. This is where Catholic Social Teaching, with its emphasis upon the family as first and primary educators, with ultimate responsibilities to their children and non-delegable duties, comes in.

An interesting comparison can be made when we look at the drive to get more children into Early Years and nursery education. A few weeks ago I attended an induction session prior to my daughter’s entry into primary school in September. The school had helpfully provided a list of expectations, things which children ought to be capable of achieving independently before they start. Incredibly, the list included whether or not they could recognise their own name. Not in written format, but did they actually know what their own name was. Would they know that the teacher was actually calling to, speaking to or referring to them if their name was used in a classroom situation. Another was were they able to use the toilet independently – were they potty trained?

It beggared belief that children may be starting school without these basic skills, but seemingly there is an increasing tranche of parents who believe that this is the state’s responsibility. No wonder the government is wanting to get as many children as possible into nursery care, in order to be confident that children have reached a minimum standard before starting school. As the state takes more and more responsibility for our diet, our children, our sex lives, the more dependent we become and instead of taking responsibility for ourselves, or encouraging other people to, the more we expect someone else with spurious qualifications (like a City & Guilds in bottom-wiping) to take control and sort it out.

Arguably state intervention in terms of prescribing our diet and lifestyle is far more intimate and invasive than moves to discourage abortion and promiscuous sex, yet the latter remains taboo, the former desirable in the minds and consciousness of the public.

What the current moral panic about sugar and obesity demonstrates is that religion does not possess the monopoly upon attempting to proscribe certain norms of behaviour and employing morality and shaming tactics to those who do not conform. The new pariahs are no longer single mothers, divorced women, prostitutes or sex workers, but those who are overweight. It isn’t hard to draw a parallel between children who were removed from their mothers on account of their marital status and those who are forcibly removed from their parents on account of their size or parents’ couch-potato lifestyle. Their crime,  in essence, being that of loving their children too much, or not being able to exercise tough love. Removing the child from their parents may conversely cause more long-term problems that it solves.

Stuffing down an entire tub of ice-cream or packet of tortillas in one sitting has become more shameful and sinful than a raunchy sex orgy with a group of random strangers picked up on the internet. When it comes to sex, ‘who are we to judge’: when it comes to food, you must be identified as being at risk, ridiculed, shamed and punished by higher food prices for wanting to do that which is wrong, bad for you and which fecklessness could cost other people money.

There’s an irony in that moderation is constantly touted as the key in terms of diet, but dare to apply that to the sexual appetite and you’ll be shouted down as a judgemental bigot.

Forget sex, that’s sorted. The new Puritans no longer care about who you choose to sleep with or how many abortions you have, how many families you break up by your freely chosen behaviour, how many embryos you freeze or how much strain you put on your body and your or the state’s finances by your choice to use IVF, it doesn’t matter how many children are affected by negative consequences of IVF, how many women you pay to bear children for you or how many kids you deprive of loving mum and dad or of a stable family.

You can do all of these things and should not expect to receive any negative judgement on any aspect of self-destructive behaviour. Unless of course, you are fat.

A sluggish evening

4MP859 Digital Camera

From the “Beer in the Evening” website

My parents came to stay last night on their way back from a few days holiday in Devon. After supper, made all the more succulent by the fact that I didn’t have to cook it, we decided it would be a fine wheeze to take advantage of the beautiful summer’s evening and go for a stroll along the seafront.

The toddler is currently keeping unsociable hours, her sleep patterns are totally out of whack due to a combination of teething, the heat and that despite my best efforts she will insist upon falling into a comatose state around about 5pm and refusing to wake until early evening, whereupon she’s ready to party for the rest of the night.

‘Why don’t we put her in the pushchair and take her with us’ suggested my mother, wondering whether a blast of evening sea-air might make her drop off. So once the other children were settled down, off we trotted; me with the lolloping labrador in tow and my parents dutifully wheeling the buggy – the novelty and enjoyment of pushing a child in the pram has yet to diminish 8 grandchildren down the line, my mum will glad-hand it away from me at every possible opportunity.

Like Pooh-bear my mother is always in the mood ‘for a little something’, except the honey is replaced by coffee or if she is feeling particularly adventurous, a Kir Royale and so she thought it would be rather civilised if we were to find a convivial establishment in which to sit outside and indulge her favourite hobby.

Sadly there isn’t anywhere open on the Hove/Shoreham stretch of the promenade on a summer’s evening, so once we’d walked a fair way along the seafront we went back into central Hove on our way home. Walking past the Slug and Lettuce in George Street, my mum spied empty coffee cups on an outside table, surmised they served coffee and went inside to be served, whilst my dad picked a table. We had a fair bit of choice, every single outside table was empty and indeed the bar inside probably only had about 1 customer, something which suited us quite well. The toddler had fallen asleep and the puppy is yet to outgrow his over-friendly and boisterous tendencies.

My mother approached the barman and asked for 3 large coffees and was met with a curt “I’m not serving you, you’ve got a child”. Not wishing to argue the toss or have an embarrassing scene, she promptly left, surmising that the chap just couldn’t be bothered.

As we trundled disappointedly back towards home, I wondered aloud whether or not it was a licensing issue, which didn’t really make any sense seeing as we were sat outside and hardly likely to cause a problem, especially with the baby asleep. My dad thought that the person clearing the tables had heard me deliberating whether or not to order a G&T and was being over-zealous or a nannying fuss-bucket, and was taking a “I’m not serving you alcohol when you’ve got a child to look after” attitude.

We were completely baffled and rather humiliated to boot. We were told that our custom was neither wanted or welcome, on account of having a small sleeping child in a pushchair, with no explanation given as to why her presence posed such a problem.

Reflecting on it later, the encounter proved rather useful, in that it was a timely insight into how Michael Black and John Morgan might have felt when turned down for a double room at Peter and Rosemary Bull’s guesthouse. They felt that they had done nothing wrong and yet were made to feel like irresponsible pariahs, thanks to the religious views of the proprietors, to which they did not subscribe.

It’s very much how I felt, perhaps like the Bulls, the Slug and Lettuce do have a very good reason for refusing to serve customers with babies, a friend from these parts who is a vicar’s wife recounted a similar experience of being denied a hot drink due to having a baby when returning from an evening service at the church which is almost next door, but whatever their reason is, the surly barman didn’t bother to communicate it properly and made my mum and myself (being the person who has responsibility for said small person) feel about 6 inches tall.

It’s not the first time I’ve been turned away from an establishment, in my decadent hey-day as a trolly dolly, cabin crew, certain gay clubs would have the effrontery not to admit women, which similarly was often rather embarrassing if you were on a night out down-route with your colleagues (being stranded in the middle of Amsterdam, Cologne or Bangkok is no joke), but I always took it in my stride. Their gaffe, their rules and if having a small group of women was going to cause a problem or upset their clientele, then fair enough, trying to gain entrance in the first place required some brass neck.

But just like LGBT clients who encounter retailers who won’t provide them with various services such as cakes, flowers, photography or cars for their weddings, I felt ‘judged’ and found wanting in the balance. Obviously there is something very wrong about wanting to sit outside a bar on a pedestrianised street in the middle of Hove with a sleeping baby in a buggy. I should instead have gone home and glugged my way through one of Waitrose’s finest wine-boxes free from the eagle-stares and disapproval of the imaginary other customers in the outside seating area.

Of course if I had a thicker skin, I would have not given two hoots. What does the opinion of a misanthropic barman and the management of the Slug and Lettuce matter? It was admittedly humiliating and mildly inconveniencing, we’d been looking forward to a drink after our walk, but lives were not lost. All they did was to tap into an innate insecurity and neurosis about what other people might think of me, for slightly unusually being out and about with a young child at a late hour. Which is I suspect closely related to the type of insecurity experienced by gay couples in terms of not liking it when their choices are not affirmed. I’m charitably assuming that the bar does have a good reason for not serving customers with children, even if they are lacking the skills to communicate their policy. At the end of the day, no matter how uncomfortable I felt, it’s still their prerogative.

Next time my parents come, we’ll know better and head off to one of the more friendly local establishments or hang the adventure, go to one of the Cafe Neros which stays open til late.

Readers won’t be surprised to learn that when I got home, I did what all self-respecting people with an axe to grind about customer service in this day and age do, namely moan about the service on Twitter as a result of which the Slug and Lettuce have invited me to fill-out an online form with my complaint and promised to investigate. People can make up their own minds whether or not to give the bar their custom.

It all seems a lot easier than taking someone to court, suing them for compensation, attempting to put people out of business and getting the law changed to ensure my feelings are never hurt in this fashion again.

Alternatively, a move to the Italian riviera seems the best solution all round.

So it seems that the narrative about the bodies of 800 babies ‘dumped in a a septic tank’ in the grounds of the former children’s home in Tuam has finally unravelled as I predicted last week.

The post met with an overwhelming response – it was never my intention to garner or generate controversy, let alone defend the indefensible, but to cast a critical eye over what seemed to be some very implausible headlines.

It seemed beyond belief that nuns who were purported to be in the grip of religious fervour, would ignore its basic tenets, rites and rituals and simply tip the corpses into the sewage pit. Nothing is impossible, but an examination of the logisitics and historical evidence to the contrary (such as the tender for coffins) showed that the story was the result of febrile imaginations and a confirmation bias. A gruesome motif symbolising the brutal, vicious Catholic monsters of popular imagination.

The story was not so much of a hoax, there was no deliberate intent to mislead, but innate prejudices combined with a journalist’s desire to create a splash and prove his mettle as a top investigative reporter, meant that the only thing being consigned to a septic tank were basic principles of fact-checking.

I was lambasted for suggesting “it was the builder’s wot done it” but in most situations, Occam’s Razor ought to be the default position. The nuns would have had to have gone to an awful lot of trouble and inconvenience to be opening up a septic tank on a regular basis; it would have required a degree of determined and willful cruelty from all involved. It’s inconceivable to think that such an abomination would have been able to have been kept secret for over 53 years. Other people such as the lay staff at the home would surely have known.

In any event two further possibilities emerged this week.

Firstly, the Irish Times published an important letter from Dr Finbar McCormick from the school of Geography, Archeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Sir, – The media should be very wary of using the term “septic tank” to describe the structure containing the child burials at St Mary’s mother-and-child home at Tuam. It is offensive and hurtful to all those involved. The structure as described is much more likely to be a shaft burial vault, a common method of burial used in the recent past and still used today in many part of Europe.

In the 19th century, deep brick-lined shafts were constructed and covered with a large slab which often doubled as a flatly laid headstone. These were common in 19th-century urban cemeteries. The stone could be temporarily removed to allow the addition of additional coffined burials to the vault. Such tombs are still used extensively in Mediterranean countries. I recently saw such structures being constructed in a churchyard in Croatia. The shaft was made of concrete blocks, plastered internally and roofed with large concrete slabs.

Many maternity hospitals in Ireland had a communal burial place for stillborn children or those who died soon after birth. These were sometimes in a nearby graveyard but more often in a special area within the grounds of the hospital. It was not a tradition until very recently to return such deceased infants to parents for taking back to family burial places.

Until proved otherwise, the burial structure at Tuam should be described as a communal burial vault. – Yours, etc,

The RTE journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes bears a lot of responsibility for the misrepresentations of the story. He strenuously denies ever stating that there were bodies in the tank, but he certainly strongly implied it, with reports posing the question “what lies beneath”, along with posts and maps demonstrating that the spot where the boys discovered bodies was in the area of a former septic tank, and linking to photographs and highlighting awareness of a protest for ‘the babies in the bog’.

The misrepresented headlines did not appear mainly in foreign publications, as Philip claimed, they were published in UK media such as on ITV, the Belfast Telegraph, the Times and were reported as fact on BBC radio and TV and Sky news bulletins throughout the day.

Philip may not have claimed that there were bodies in a septic tank, but he did go some way to stoke the hysteria.

That said, his blogpost of yesterday appears to have shed more light on exactly what happened to the bodies of the children who died and seems to be the most likely explanation, although of course we still do not know precisely whom the bodies in the tank or shaft, discovered by the boys 40 years ago, belong to.

A woman has come forward who has related to me a credible first hand account of falling into a burial plot at the rear of the home in in the mid 70’s where she discovered a large amount of infant remains wrapped in swaddling.

Her interview suggests that one of the two spots where baby and child remains were placed could not have been a septic tank.

The Mail on Sunday has identified two sites side by side each other in its radar survey. Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney discovered one as boys in 1975. The Mail called it Plot B.

Plot A is the square shaped one Mary Moriarty says she fell into in the 1970’s when the ground subsided. A child was found playing with a baby’s skull and when Mary and neighbours investigated she discovered a large underground space with shelves from floor to ceiling stacked with infant bodies. She says she saw in excess of 100 tiny figures swaddled and guessed from the size they were newborn or stillborn.

Subsequently she talked to a woman called Julia Devaney who had been a resident of the home and later an employee. By then in her late seventies she told Mary how she had assisted the nuns carrying dead babies along a tunnel running from the back of the home to this vault.

Now obviously it will take excavation to confirm any of this but her description of the space and the possible existence of a tunnel used to access this burial plot would suggest that plot A (whatever of Plot B) at least was not a septic tank.

Boucher-Hayes goes on to say that unanswered questions remain such as why were the babies buried there instead of the municipal graveyard over the road where there was an ‘angels’ plot’ for unbaptised babies. I suspect the answer is cost, we know that the rate-payers were already unhappy at having to fork out for ‘illegitimate’ children along with convenience. We do not know whether or this vault was consecrated at any point or whether or not it only contained babies.

It’s been exasperating and amusing in equal measure to watch how media organisations including the BBC refer to how the babies and children were ‘routinely denied baptism’. Firstly, why should the BBC even care about whether water was splashed over a child’s head and received a religious sacrament which will probably be nothing more than superstition to an impartial secular state broadcaster.

Secondly, there is no evidence to suggest that such a thing did routinely happen, if anything the childrens’ circumstances of birth would have made their baptism seem doubly important to those religious running the homes and there are plenty of accounts of children attending Mass and receiving First Holy Communion, a sacrament it is impossible for the unbaptised to receive. As yet there is nothing to suggest that baptised children were not buried in consecrated ground, but as ever it’s a subtle way of reinforcing contempt for these sisters and placing the finger of blame upon their religion, by portraying adherents as uncaring hypocrites who tried to exclude children from the faith. The evidence to support this just isn’t there.

This is why campaigners have been so keen to attempt to repeatedly hammer home other unpalatable facts, in particular the high mortality rate experienced at Tuam’s children home which was in common with the mortality rates for infants and children born out of wedlock and in institutions across Ireland. This, they believe, is evidence of deliberate cruelty and maltreatment, in which the home at Tuam, being run by a Catholic order, would have undoubtedly participated.

Mortality rates and Vaccine trials

Lurid claims that the children in some homes were subject to horrifying trials of vaccinations without consent, along with other claims of abhorrent practices are precisely why an inquiry needs to be held, in order that, as the Archbishop of Dublin has said, the truth may come out. The vaccine trials element seems to be especially concerning, in that this would have involved the complicity and silence of the manufacturers and medical profession, who to some extent must have been driving this initiative. Did no-one in the medical profession, including those who received the results of such research think to ask questions about the appropriateness of testing them upon children or the ethics of using or recommending a vaccine that had been developed in such a fashion? What is the involvement and complicity of big Pharma along with the state’s medical officers who supervised and administered the trials. Why are they not being pressed about this issue in the same way? Do pharma companies still use institutionalised children and prisoners as has been suggested? It seems that there is still an issue in terms of obtaining informed consent from patients for drugs trials in poorer countries, but without the addition of monstrous demon nuns, the interest is limited.

It is not good enough to blame atrocities upon the age or the time, those who ran Christian institutions ought to have known better – Christianity is uncompromising about sexual ethics, but it is equally demanding on the principles of forgiveness, reconciliation and treating one another with love. Strictures about due care of widows and orphans appear to have been wholly disregarded.

However, justice is not best served by trashing the reputation of a particular order of deceased nuns on the basis of scant evidence, supposition and confirmation bias. All parties deserve better than for Tuam’s children to be treated as a convenient totem. As yet there is nothing to suggest the deliberate or willful cruelty at this one institution.

So if the story about the septic tank is wrong then what else is wrong? If you’re going to fashion a stick with which to beat the Catholic church, it would be better not to use papier-mache as your raw material.

This leaflet produced by the Committee for the Children’s Home memorial in Tuam, describes not only how children were receiving Firstly Holy Communion but also how one of the problems facing the children were that they were boarded out to unsuitable homes, where foster parents were happy to take the money from the government to look after the children, but treated them like slaves, in many cases not giving them enough to eat or even clothing them properly.

How responsible were the sisters for vetting the homes into which the children were sent? The Mother Superior complained that the home was not suitable or designed for large numbers of children and that there were not sufficient numbers of staff to look after and raise them all. Whose responsibility was it for ensuring the wellbeing of the children once they left the home?

I am not saying that the nuns were not in any way at fault, but what has emerged is a picture of a home which never left the hands of the state who were struggling with rising costs, a delapidated building, a council reluctant to put its hands in its pockets and an elderly doctor on the point of retirement. According to this report, the medical officer in the Tuam Home was probably “Ireland’s oldest doctor”.

Some of the many causes of death were listed as follows: whooping cough, anaemia, influenza, kidney inflammation, laryngitis, congenital heart disease, enteritis, epilepsy, spinal bifida, chicken pox, general odeama (dropsy), coeliac disease, birth injury, sudden circulatory failure and fits. As anyone living in any sort of close proximity to another knows, it only takes one member of a family to come down with a lurgy and within 24 hours the whole household is struck down, with whatever nasty is doing the rounds. Conditions like gastroenteritis could quickly prove fatal in the absence of decent medical care, hygiene and medication. I’ve had to take two of babies to hospital for dehydration.

There are many issues arising from child mortality rates, Irish blogger Cathyby has compiled some useful charts which put these into sombre perspective and ought to be considered as part of the inquiry.

Speaking on RTE’s morning show, historian Ann Matthews who has written a book on the mother and baby homes made some interesting points. She reminded listeners that under discussion were isolated high mortality rates in the ‘20s. In 1933-34 the mortality rates of children in one home spiked to 40% due to a measles epidemic,  but by 1934-1935, due to help from the local government and the sweepstake, 4 homes had dedicated maternity hospitals built and they started to slowly get on top of keeping the spread of infection down, stopping the spread of measles and trying to feed young women.

What is overlooked is that there were clusters of young girls aged 14-18 coming into the homes completely malnourished, barely capable of carrying a successful pregnancy to term and unable to breastfeed the baby so that it would have little chance of thriving. Some reports blame nuns for forcing women to breastfeed, which is commonly accepted as best for the baby, others berate them for encouraging bottle feeding which would have put the babies at increased risk of deadly gastroenteritis.

The effect of maternal health upon the unborn child is a something that there is increased awareness of today – we know that conditions such as hypertension and diabetes need to be carefully monitored as they may affect mother and child. Teen pregnancies are more problematic from a health point of view, they at are increased risk of complications and premature birth. When you factor in the age and social strata of many of the girls presenting at the homes, it may go some way to explain the high mortality rates, along with other factors such as lack of  nutritious diet, antibiotics and adequate infection control.

According to Ann Matthews, meticulous records were kept at all the homes she studied, which are now in the hands of Ireland’s HSE.  All the information is there to enable the story to be studied and told in a non-judgemental and informative way. She claims that the religious orders were more than happy to assist her in obtaining the information and answering enquiries in the course of research for her book.

I do have some sympathy for the nuns especially the current sisters who have come under severe criticism for their decision to employ a PR firm. The fact that they have allowed this to be known, shows how ill-equipped they are to handle the media. The sisters have neither confirmed or denied reports of a mass grave because they are unable to. The home shut down 53 years ago and the records were handed over the authorities at the time. Their particular vocation is about caring for the sick and suffering particularly in hospitals, care homes and private homes, not running a slick PR operation. They have neither the time, manpower, nor expertise and this must detract from their vital and necessary daily work  of tending to the sick.

Any inquiry must examine, not only the religious institutions and how they were interconnected, but also the state organisations such as the state-run County Homes where up to 70% of unmarried mothers and their children ended up which is what historian Sean Lucey claimed in this week’s Irish Times. The scandal of the unmarked graves in the Protestant-run Bethany institution which was revealed in the same week as Tuam, received no global media.

It isn’t just the deaths of the children which are problematic, it’s the maltreatment, the vaccination programme, forced adoptions and boarding out. The inquiry should be far-reaching and ask why these homes were set up and include both the privately and publicly funded ones. It should also examine the young women and how they came to be there, including how they became pregnant, was it rape, family members or employers? It should also examine all of the individuals’ records.

One unfortunate consequence of the story is that it has proved enormously distressing to the survivors of these homes who have been left wondering whether or not their relatives were dumped in a septic tank or similar. It has also concerned those who do not wish for their personal histories and stories to become public knowledge as a result of the press coverage or any resulting criminal investigation. Much of the resulting coverage has been very insensitive and caused enormous hurt to the already vulnerable victims and survivors.

“You pro-lifers you don’t care about dead babies, only unborn ones – you have no compassion”

Some of the personal criticism I have received as a result of writing about this has included accusations of a lack of compassion and trying to defend wrongdoing. Let me be clear about this, as a mother of 4 children, the issue of how unmarried mothers and children were treated has appalled me and not just in Ireland.

Thinking about the physical conditions and shame that these women had to endure, along with how most of them were forced to give their babies up, produces a hard knot of nausea and panic in my stomach. It constitutes a form of torture for mother and child alike. My visceral response is one of violence, the type of violence that anyone would receive if they tried to remove one of my babies or children from me.

When it comes to the children themselves, it’s the small details that choke me, for the last week every time I brush my children’s teeth I can’t stop thinking about the children in the home, who was there to help them with basic tasks of self-care, who helped them to cut up their food, or hold a drink without spilling it, wiped their bottoms and so on. It isn’t just the harsh conditions, but the lack of a loving family and individual emotional nurture that is so heartbreaking, especially when you then consider how they were further stigmatised by the wider communities as untouchables.

Keep your nose out of Ireland’s business

lucky charms

The other criticism or implication coming from folk like Colm O’Gorman who was happy to welcome Nadine Dorries’ negative comments about the Irish Catholic church (on the grounds of her Liverpudlian family connections) is that as an ignorant Sasanach I really ought to refrain from commenting on this affair which is purely Ireland’s business and resulting from a particular brand of Irish Catholicism.

Whatever the particular causes, be it a Jansenist version of Catholicism which was practiced in Ireland, or that people were genuinely terrified as to the consequences of illegitimacy and poverty having experienced several famines, or that the newly established Free State was trying build a Utopia and using Catholicism as a moral arbiter, (though no Christian could condone what happened here), leaving aside the ubiquitous Irish family card (my husband’s family), or the fact that I write for a publication with a significant Irish readership, this story is of interest to anyone concerned with the rights and welfare of women and mothers.

As a pro-lifer I have a direct interest in attempting to understand attitudes which led women to be abandoned in institutes and caused suffering to them and their babies – these are the same attitudes which lead to abortion today. In the absence of serious indications to the contrary, mothers and babies always fare better when a mother is allowed to raise her own child. Adoption is a wonderful gift but it should only ever be a last resort.

As a Catholic there is also an interest in getting to the bottom of what happened. What people fail to understand is that the Church is the body of Christ, comprised of every single believer on the planet. When one part hurts, we all feel the pain as a collective. Therefore where abuses have been committed in her name, it is the responsibility of all of us. This is not just Irish history, but part of Catholic history. Communities are formed in part by memories and histories and so we have a duty not only to the victims, but also to future generations to ensure an accurate version of history is preserved.

But to write this off as purely an Irish tragedy or an Irish Catholic tragedy is short-sighted. The UK had more than its fair share of institutions which were little more than dumping grounds for unwanted mothers and babies. The website motherandbabyhomes provides a harrowing insight into life and conditions in such UK institutions. Jennifer Worth, author of the Call the Midwife series of books, relates how unmarried mothers were pressurised into giving up their babies for adoptions, in many cases being threatened with incarceration in a mental hospital if they refused and of false diagnoses of mental illnesses justifying the child’s removal.

David Quinn writing in the Irish Independent has highlighted how that liberal paradise Sweden forced unmarried mothers to have abortions and sterilised them along with other women thought to be at risk of producing illegitimate children. Even the good old USA, land of the free and home of the brave has something of a chequered history when it comes to forced programmes of eugenics and sterilisation of poor women.

We are deluding ourselves if we think these attitudes do not exist today – a recent UK example being the numbers of Downs Syndrome children aborted, whose existence was  forgotten, deemed unimportant enough for the abortion clinics to even record properly.

Equally the drive by successive UK governments to get unmarried and single mothers back into work as swiftly as possible instead of the all important job of raising and nurturing their children, echoes a similar desire for ‘penance’ and a Protestant work ethic.

The enquiry is both a blessing and a curse for Enda Kenny, on the one hand he can indulge his habit of berating the Irish Catholic society of 50 years ago thereby distracting from the pressing issues of Ireland’s healthcare system and the economy; on the other hand Ireland is currently skint, and one could legitimately ask whether or not an inquiry is the best use of resources.

In a scandal which has shades of Tuam, one child dies every fortnight in Ireland’s HSE care system, according to this report in November 2013. Old people are stigmatised and institutionalised in homes on account of their fragility and similarly complained about in terms of their cost.

To isolate Mother and Baby homes as being a symptom of twentieth-century Ireland combined with Catholicism is self-satisfying, sanctimonious, short-sighted and glib. The answer lies not in demonising Ireland or Catholicism, but returning to Christian teachings which identify flawed human nature and propose a definitive strategy in terms of how we should all be treating each other.

baby_2229536b

It’s that time of year again  – the UK abortion stats have been released for 2013, which will be carefully crafted into a positive press release by agencies with a commercial interest and so we can expect to see cheerful headlines about the increase in early abortion and the declining abortion rate in women aged 15-44.

The real story is rather more complicated. The rate of women aged 15-44 having an abortion has declined to 15.9 per 1,000 and is indeed at its lowest for 16 years. But the overall total of abortions performed in the UK in 2013 has slightly increased from last years figure and is 2.3% higher than 10 years ago. The amount of women choosing to have an abortion might be in decline, but all is not lost for the private clinics – those who do have an abortion are likely to be repeat customers. In any event we shouldn’t forget that despite being at its lowest level for some time, in 2013 the rate of women having an abortion was double that of 1970.

The pro-choice, pro lots of lovely sex ed and contraception lobby find themselves in something of a bind. There is the very welcome news that abortion rate for the under-16s and the under 18s shows a steady decline, in common with teen pregnancies. “See, hooray look, lots of education and access to contraception in schools is the answer” they will cry, with collective pats on the back, affirming blogposts and accompanying PR about ‘evidence-based’ choice. Indeed the rate of abortions performed on those under the age of 22 is declining. Fewer young people going through the agony of abortion is something that folk on all sides of the debate will applaud.

But here’s the rub: the numbers of those aged 22 and above having an abortion remains static from 2012. Which means that either people are suddenly forgetting what teacher told them about the banana and the condom and the handy over-the-counter pill back in 4B, or that they are taking more risks, or as is most likely to be the case, that this is the age where regular sexual activity is the norm. A 22 year old is far more likely to be cohabiting or having sex on a more frequent basis than a 16 year old whose sex life will probably consist of sporadic chaotic fumbles. By the time you’ve got to 22, most young women will have imbibed the mantras of Cosmpolitan and the like and be aiming for some sort of quality and consistency in their intimate life.

And why shouldn’t they, will be the riposte of the feminists. What’s the point of equality if you can’t have multiple orgasms and demand that a partner gives you 100% satisfaction, and obey your whims 100% of the time, just for the privilege of being with you?!

I digress, but what this cultural demand and expectation that women really ought to be demanding marvellous sex lives means (and I’m all for the latter, trust me, I just don’t believe that the vision women are being sold leads to anything other than narcissist, paranoid and ultimately frustrating intimate encounters) is that it makes women entirely reliant on contraception. If you know that pregnancy would spell a disaster then it’s the ‘responsible’ thing to use contraception because you know, swinging from the chandeliers and achieving orgasms in double figures is your birthright as a woman. If you’re not having lots of juicy sex ,then let’s face it you’re probably a freak, there’s something wrong with you and nobody would want to be with you anyway!

So all these emancipated young women are totally dependent on their contraception, which is a bit of a problem considering that no method is 100% effective! Which is where the kindly ‘abortions for only £700 a time charged directly to your local NHS trust’, BPAS come in, with their reassuring campaigns that you are not alone, 1 in 3 women will need an abortion in their lifetime and that around 66% of their clients have managed to conceive while using contraception. Still, once you’ve had an abortion the clinics will kindly advise you on future contraception to guarantee repeat custom, under the guise of altruism, selling the expectation that you won’t once again end up in that 66% bracket.

If you think I’m being just an itsy bitsy bit cynical, then it’s worth remembering that the 2013 abortion figures demonstrate that the number of abortions performed in private clinics which are paid for by the NHS are at an all-time high of 64%, up on 62% of the previous year.

The repeat abortion figures are in fact, astonishingly high, 44% of all women aged 25-29  ending their pregnancies in 2013 underwent a repeat abortion, a figure which rose to 47% in the 30-34 age bracket and then dipped to 45% in the over 35’s. It seems that once you have had one abortion, you are more than likely to have another.

With repeat abortions at 37% amongst all women in 2013, compared to 32% in 2012, it’s no wonder that the clinics describe it as a ‘need’. Almost 50,000 women who had an abortion last year, had already had one. Black or Black British women and those of mixed race were more likely to have had an abortion than white women and other groups. Interestingly Asian and Chinese women have the lowest preponderance of repeat abortions, despite the fact that Asian women are likely to be more affected by the issue of gendercide – perhaps this is indicative the rise of the professional Asian class in the UK.

At a time Catholics are being blamed for their attitudes towards sex and stigmatising of single mothers in twentieth century Ireland, not much has changed. Around 81% of abortions were performed in 2013 upon single women, a number which has risen slowly from 76%, ten years ago in 2003.

Another statistic to be vaunted will be the number of abortions carried out under 13 weeks,  comprising 91% of the total, same as last year, but that abortions under 10 weeks had risen to 79% compared with 77% in 2012 and 59% in 2003.

The subtext here is that the earlier an abortion the better, both for mother and child alike (although a dead baby is a dead baby at whatever stage it’s at) but the complication rates seem to have risen in that 11% of women having an abortion under 10 weeks needed a stay of at least 1 night in hospital. The rate of complications obviously rises the further progressed you are in pregnancy, 25% of abortions of 13-19 weeks required a hospital stay, rising to 57% of those more than 20 weeks or more. We shouldn’t forget that complications experienced once you have left the clinic premises are not recorded.

The rise in early abortions, and medical abortions indicate that women are making their decision earlier than ever before. This once again raises the contentious issue of counselling – if 64% of all abortions are being carried out in private clinics on behalf of the NHS, then it’s imperative that women are not rushed into making a decision due to the time limits of one particular method.

The high number of abortions being carried out by private providers using NHS funds highlights the need for accountability to the public by abortion clinics along with the organisations which they fund to go into schools. This week we’ve seen that well over half of the abortions carried out on the grounds that the baby had Downs Syndrome were not properly recorded, with most information being lost. Add in the fact that doctors caught pre-signing abortion forms without seeing a patient were neither prosecuted nor did they have to face a fitness to practice hearing, despite being in breach of the law, then one has to wonder at the wisdom of yet further liberalising the practice of abortion law.

The clinics have not yet shown that they can be trusted. It will be interesting to see if there is any variation in these figures now the government have clarified that the practice of gender selective abortion is illegal.

One final stat here. So often we hear that late stage abortions are a necessary option for those who discover that their baby has a terrible anomaly.

Leaving aside the arguments about whether or not we ought to impose our vision of what constitutes quality of life to justify depriving another of life, ‘feticide’ was the word which jumped out at me while looking at the table which outlined the methods used to abort the baby, admitting that direct action to end the life of the baby was performed prior to their forced evacuation from the womb.

Of those who aborted their babies between the ages of 20-24 weeks, 904 were on the grounds of fetal anomaly, which means 1,659 babies were aborted at a time when the mother was over-half way through her pregnancy, the baby was fully formed, waving, kicking, smiling and the mother would have felt the movements, simply because they were no longer wanted.

To put that figure in some kind of context, that’s more than the 1,491 live births to women aged 38-39 from 7,500 cycles of IVF. Or how about comparing the 8,500 abortions performed in 2013 on women in the over-40 age bracket with the 6,355 cycles of IVF resulting in 822 births in women in the age 40-42 cohort. What kind of a pickle have we got ourselves into?

When is society going to wake up to the screwy schizophrenia surrounding female fertility instead of patting ourselves on how well we are doing at educating people into a pattern of repeat abortions.

It’s not about regulating others’ sex lives or controlling their bodies but recognising that not only does this take the life of an unborn child but it also causes irreparable pain and suffering to so many women. I don’t which is more depressing. That nothing has changed, the lives lost to abortion in 2013 or that this time next year I’ll be saying exactly the same thing.

 

In a revealing article in the Irish Times published online 45 minutes ago, Catherine Corless, the amateur historian who uncovered the records of the 796 children who died at the Tuam children’s home, run by the Bon Secours sisters has expressed her dissatisfaction by the way the story has been covered by the media, in particular the claims that 800 bodies were ‘dumped’. ‘I never said that word’ – she states.

What has upset, confused and dismayed her in recent days is the speculative nature of much of the reporting around the story, particularly about what happened to the children after they died. “I never used that word ‘dumped’,” she says again, with distress. “I just wanted those children to be remembered and for their names to go up on a plaque. That was why I did this project, and now it has taken [on] a life of its own.”

Her motivation was entirely about commemorating those who died there and her original article describes how she believes that the children were buried in an unofficial graveyard at the rear of the home. Perhaps this is why the locals have been so shocked on the discovery of the news, because many of them had tended to what was believed to be ‘the angels plot’ putting up a makeshift garden and Marian shrine.

In the light of Corless’ research which was first reported last year, a graveyard committee was established, a copy of her article was distributed and donations asked for a plaque following a Mass at Tuam Cathedral last year. Barry Sweeney, one of the boys who had originally discovered the graves, got in touch with Catherine to confirm that he had found bones, but as the Irish Times reports:

. “But there was no way there were 800 skeletons down that hole. Nothing like that number. I don’t know where the papers got that.” How many skeletons does he believe there were? “About 20.”

He goes on to state that the size of the slab broken into was 120cm by 60cm, roughly the size of his coffee table. This makes sense and what I was suggesting in my previous post which received such condemnation from certain quarters. There is no way that you would squeeze 800 bodies into a septic tank.

The article notes the archive material about the sewage scheme which was brought to the home in 1937. The tank had been in use between 1926 and 1937 during which period 204 children died. Catherine Corless admits that it is impossible that the tank would fit 204 bodies and that they would have been thrown into a working sewage tank.

My theory has always been that during these works, which would have required digging, bodies of famine victims were unearthed and it was these who were put unceremoniously into the hollowed out tank, perhaps to save space.

Catherine Corless has said that no-one from the government has asked to review her work, neither has anyone corroborated it, but that she would be happy to share it.

It is likely that the babies are buried on the site somewhere, there are many children’s burial grounds in County Galway and throughout Ireland, but the story that 800 babies were ‘dumped in a septic tank’ is undoubtedly false.

Michael Cook from Mercatornet produced this map of all the childrens’ burial grounds in Country Galway.

Childrens Burial Grounds Galway

Here is an archeological explanation of the work that has so far been carried out on the site of the former home. These specialists posit  that the children may have been buried at a site less than a mile away.

We would hypothesise that not only did the Bons Secours nuns in Tuam have to face the difficulties in burying dead infants but so too did many/most Irish families at a time when infant mortality rates were very high. It is no coincidence that Children’s Burial Grounds abound throughout Ireland and also that one is found in Ballymoat townland less than a mile northeast of the Workhouse. If the nuns did bury the infant dead within the Home grounds then where did the neighbouring families bury their infant dead? Some in the children’s burial ground and some in consecrated ground?

None of this detracts from the unacceptably high death rates in Mother and Baby homes and it is important that more research into these institutions is carried out, which is why the Archbishop of Dublin asked his diocesan archivist to collate all the records pertaining to the Mother and Baby homes and make them available to the government, just a few months ago.

This letter in the Irish Times, along with many of the comments on my previous post, throws some light onto conditions faced in the home.

Cohorting infants in institutions puts small infants at risk from cross-infection, particularly gastroenteritis. Early infection to the gastrointestinal tract can cause severe bowel damage. Without the availability of recent technology, many such infants would die from malabsorption resulting in marasmus [severe malnutrition]. The risks would have been much increased if the infants were not breast fed.

In foundling homes in the US in the early 20th century, mortality was sometimes reported as greater than 90 per cent among infants cared for in such institutions. Lack of understanding of nutrition, cross-infection associated with overcrowding by today’s standards, and the dangers of unpasteurised human milk substitutes were the main factors.

Of course many of the babies are reported to have been breast-fed as their mothers were there, but gastroenteritis is certainly an important consideration. Even if the babies were breast-fed, they would have been at increased risk once weaning began. There is always the possibility that they were mixed fed but in any event milk substitute only one factor in gastroenteritis which is very dangerous. My daughter was very ill with campylobacter as a baby, despite good hygiene and being breast-fed.

Irish Blogger Shane, (Lux Occulta) has carried out research indicating that the mortality rate in the home at Tuam was actually LOWER than much of the rest of the country, except in Dublin, where it was the same.

Between 1925 and 1937, 204 children died at the Home — an average of 17 per year. 17 deaths out of 200 children equals a mortality rate of 8.5%. It is interesting to compare that with the rest of the country at the time. In 1933, the infant mortality rate in Dublin was 83 per thousand (ie. a mortality rate of 8.3%), in Cork it was 89 per thousand (8.9%), in Waterford it was 102 per thousand (10.2%) and in Limerick it was 132 per thousand (13.2%). (Source: Irish Press, 12th April, 1935; below).

Also the historian Liam Hogan (@limerick1914) who has done so much work in digging up the archives and sharing them, has discovered that the home never once left the hands of the County Council. In 1951, 10 years before it shut, the sisters were begging the board for a grant, saying that they were too ashamed to show councils part of the building which desperately needed renovations, the children were sleeping in attics in terrible conditions and the building were considered a fire risk. In a meeting in 1949, Senator Martin Quinn were told that the children were suffering as result of the condition of the building, to which he replied “I do not like these statements which receive such publicity”.

It seems that the home shut after money wrangles, the County Council were simply not prepared to spend the money to upgrade the building which they owned, especially if it was later to be handed into the hands of the nuns. It was pointed out however, that the nuns could not be expected to take over and maintain a property which was in such bad condition.

Other interesting facts to have emerged are that the Mother Superior was a member of the NSPCC and that the ratepayers repeatedly talked about the unacceptable cost of the ‘misfortunates’. ‘I want the public to know what the illegitimate children are costing the ratepayers of Galway’ said one report in 1938.

This is not meant in any way to deflect or divert blame from any individuals within the Catholic Church, we know that various religious fell well short of the standards expected of them.

“800 bodies dumped and she wants to talk about the logistics” scoffed one tweep. But to most critical thinkers, the story never made sense.

No matter what may have gone on, there is no way that nuns would have been refusing to baptise children as suggested or simply tossing their bodies into a septic tank. That people were so willing to believe this and jump on the outrage bandwagon should be a cause for concern and shows that much work still needs to be done to atone by the Church and others for a terrible time in Ireland’s history.

article-2645870-1E1E699200000578-319_634x321The story of the home run by the Catholic sisters of the Bon Secours has hit the UK press after a resulting Irish media storm.

It has predictably whipped up anti-Catholic outrage and sentiment amongst the small clique of Irish secularists who seem to inhabit Twitter, lurking to pounce on anyone who dares to say anything less than condemnatory about the Catholic Church in Ireland. It’s difficult to tell how representative they are of wider public opinion, but nonetheless the story and the victims deserve a response.

The UK Daily Mail handles the story in an uncharacteristically balanced fashion, noting that these types of homes were prevalent throughout Ireland and run by both the Catholic and Protestant Church.

The existence of a mass grave is tragic – it is saddening that children were buried in this fashion, without any sort of memorial and no burial records, however the claims that they were unceremoniously dumped into a septic tank full of sewage will almost certainly be false. The bodies which were found by two boys playing in the 1970s were interred in a concrete tank. The septic tank referred to had been attached to the building when it was a former workhouse, and was decommissioned by the time the sisters took over the building to run as a home in 1926.

Little is known about the size of the tank, nor has it been confirmed how many bodies are contained therein. The first task must surely be to secure the site and carry out forensic analysis. The boys who discovered the grave describe it ‘full to the brim with bones’ after breaking through concrete slabs, but that does not confirm numbers of bodies. It’s interesting that back in 1975, no further investigation was thought necessary, the site was apparently blessed by a priest before being resealed.

Local historian Catherine Corless has discovered the records of 796 babies and children who died at the home, but it isn’t clear whether or not they are all contained within the grave. The first thing must be to establish numbers and ages of those who were interred and a respectful re-internmnet and memorial must be erected. This is already in progress. The sisters of the Bon Secours have already requested an urgent meeting with the Archbishop of Tuam to discuss how best to honour all those in the home. This is an important first step.

One inconsistency is that according to an advert placed in a local paper, the Connacht Tribune in 1932, the Home was tendering for coffins. This would seem to be inconsistent with a policy that sought to expediently dispose of bodies in an undignified fashion.

The logistics of tossing corpses into a septic tank should also be thought about. How likely is it that they would have had a permanently open space or pit in which to to place bodies. Surely the existence of this would have been noted somewhere along with resulting hygiene concerns?

Archives from 1937 call for “the removal of the cesspool at the back of the home” as the smell was intolerable. In 1938 the MO and Matron of the home pleaded for a new disinfecting chamber and laundry and six months later sent a letter to the Committee asking if anything could be done to speed up the process. The idea of a permanently open grave doesn’t seem to tally with the other stated concerns. One also has to wonder about how the bodies were placed into a sealed septic tank via narrow pipes. Did the nuns return regularly to a pit full of decayed macerated corpses without commenting on it anywhere?

The Connacht Tribune records that Tuam Sewerage Scheme was to be extended to the Children’s Home in 1928. Is it possible that during this period existing graves were exhumed and the bodies reinterred. The boys’ description of a pit with a brimful of bones suggest that the bones could at least have been adult, it is unlikely that babies’ bones buried in shrouds would have been visible 20, 30, or 40 years later. The grave was  explained as belonging to famine victims  – presumably this belief would have had some basis? Prior to being a home for married mothers, the building was a workhouse for famine victims.

What we do know is that often bodies were exhumed during the road building process in Ireland and not reinterred in a respectful fashion, even being dumped in drains in some instances. It is feasible that the children were buried correctly, even on consecrated ground and then later moved during a redevelopment of the site. This is why decent forensics is vital.

Another piece of the outrage stems from the widespread practice of burying babies in unconsecrated ground. These days this no longer happens, but the belief in limbo was still prevalent in mid twentieth-century Ireland. I remember being shocked as a child when my mother pointed to an area on the edges of the churchyard in Ashburton which is where she said, her baby brother born in 1946 was buried, away from the graves of his grandparents right in the centre of the church. She related how the monks from neighbouring Buckfast Abbey came out to conduct the service, (they did not have a graveyard at this time), but that he died before they had a chance to baptise him. This may seem cruel, but it was the norm. That’s not to say that no rites were carried out. In any event limbo is not an abhorrent concept which has been revamped in a PR exercise. The truth is that we do not know what happens to the souls of the babies, but we trust in God’s mercy, knowing that He is good. Limbo taught that as innocents, the souls of the babies would enjoy happiness, only not the perfect happiness of the beatific vision.

The practice of burying babies in unconsecrated ground has long since been revised, however it’s telling that no such outrage is expressed by these pro-choice secularists with regards to the appalling treatment of foetal remains by hospitals and abortion clinics who  were happy to incinerate them for energy with surgical waste.

The death rates from neglect, malnutrition and preventable diseases easily treated with antibiotics are undoubtedly shocking. No-one seeks to excuse them. With that in mind, the death rates in Tuam seem to be consistent with the death rates of illegitimate children throughout Ireland as a whole, which were 3 or 4 times that of legitimate children and double the death rates of illegitimate children in England and Wales.

Ireland was in the grip of poverty, as  Anglo-Irish Catholic tweep @dillydillys has pointed out, rural Irish society was ruthless compared with our comfortable armchair perspective. Life was tough during the lean years of the economic wars between Britain and the Free State.

Clare Mulvany, an Irish colleague in Catholic Voices tells of how her uncle died aged 18 months from a simple skin infection easily treatable with antibiotics who was hastily buried the next morning. It’s how life operated. Antibiotics were not easily available or accessed and bodies would be buried swiftly.

There are many allegations of children being deliberately starved and maltreated – where this happened this is abhorrent and should be condemned. The calls for an inquiry and a Garda investigation are correct, if belated. This should have happened back in the ‘70s or even in February 2013 when the story began to emerge in the press. Also there are reports of Catherine Corless meeting with the film-makers behind Philomena last year, Why did this story take so long to air?

In direct contravention of allegations of ‘dying rooms’ and deliberate starvation, a Tuam Herald report in 1949 on the Inspection of the home, says that “they found everything in very good order and congratulated the sisters on the excellent conditions in their Institution”. An earlier Board of Health report in 1935, says that “Tuam is one of the best managed institutions in the country”.  In 1944, the Matron requested that all occupants were immunised against Diphtheria.It was also recommended that vaccines for whooping cough were supplied.  Is this indicative of an uncaring attitude? In 1950 a programme of improvements to the building was proposed to the Committee however these were never carried out due to costs. The home finally closed due to dilapidation in 1961 after the £90,000 proposed extension was instead used to carry out improvements on the nursing home run by the sisters.

children-at-the-home-in-tuam-co-galway

In a revealing exchange in 1961, it was claimed that those in charge of the home had not been paid for extra work done and that some of the most capable nuns had been moved. It was admitted that the conduct of the home had been unsatisfactory for quite some time. The conditions were attributed to a shortage of ‘trained staff, unsuitable buildings and other factors’.

The Archbishop of Dublin is quite correct to call for a social history project to be run in parallel to any inquiry in order that an accurate picture of life in the homes can be established.

This is not to deny abuses or shocking treatment, but to point the blame solely at the church alone is too simple.

Reports from 1929 show that a special maternity ward for the unmarried mothers was added to the Home in Tuam. The reason for this is that married women and paying customers at the local district hospital in Connacht were unwilling to share their hospital facilities with the ‘misfortunates’. They wanted segregation. This proposal was opposed by a priest, Canon Ryder who wanted to find accommodation for these mothers in other hospitals.

This moving of the mothers to a separate institution lacking trained staff and facilities would have undoubtedly contributed to infant and maternal mortality rates.

Society and state wanted these women to disappear and colluded with the Church who were willing to provide institutions. A sanctioned burning of library books portraying unmarried mothers in a positive light took place in Galway in 1928. A ratepayers meeting in  Portumna said that no additional burden should be placed upon married parents who already had enough to do with the raising on their own children and that the state must step in to act. In a direct contravention of the Catholic principles said to be influencing attitudes towards unmarried mothers, it was deemed unreasonable to expect married families to pitch in and help. In 1926, the annual cost of £26 for each year to raise each infant was deemed unacceptably high. The Board of Health was told to provide for them at the least possible expense and therefore the charity of the Sisters was extremely convenient.

Fr Owen Sweeney, Chaplain to London’s Irish centre noted in a meeting in Galway in 1964, that “facilities were so much better in Ireland (than England) for the unmarried mother and her child”.

But before condemning the Church alone, we should also ask questions of a society that was happy to wave goodbye to unmarried mothers and who wanted them hidden. The concerns and stigma were driven as much by cost as anything that the Church taught on this matter. Every single Western culture stigmatised single mothers prior to the advent of the contraceptive pill.

I am glad that such attitudes have changed. I mentioned in previous posts that my grandmother was illegitimate. She was born in 1913 and one of the lucky ones, but the stigma blighted her childhood and affected her right up until her death at the age of 99. My family has experienced what this does to a person. My mother was never able to learn the identity of her own grandparents until her mother died last year.

For every mother sent to an institution there was a society unwilling to accept them into their community and to stand up for their basic dignity. There was a documented unwillingness to rely on their testimony regarding the paternity of their children or to hold the men to account.

To blame the refusal to share precious resources with those who were deemed to be morally deficient on account of their straightened circumstances, on Christian doctrine, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the Gospel message. The Catholic church may be complicit in that the institutions may well have mistreated those in their care, but that surely needs to be attributed to the individuals who worked there, some of whom had discovered a vocation was a convenient solution to their own poverty. Nowhere does the Catechism ever condone unjust treatment of the poor and Christ reserves some of his strongest words for those who mistreat children. One wonders how much of this pointing the finger of the blame at the Church is a projection of personal guilt – the children from the home were forced to sit apart from and bullied by their legitimate peers as Catherine Corless relates.

But we are fooling ourselves if we believe that we are living in a more enlightened age or seek to blame such stigma on religious doctrine. The demonisation of those on welfare and benefits due to the media coverage of families such as those belonging to White Dee has nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with human nature.

We display exactly the same attitude in terms of marginalising vulnerable children and wishing for an expensive embarrassing problem to be quietly dealt with every time we stay silent or sanction an abortion, whether that’s of a child from a socially disadvantaged or financially struggling parent or one who has disabilities.

Last week Archbishop “Charlie” Brown described the green shots of the Irish Catholic Spring following 20 years of winter.  Ireland’s wounds are beginning to heal, helped by the enthusiasm of the young and the appointment of Marie Collins to the newly established Pontifical Commission to the Protection of children.

With the green shoots and buds of Spring emerging no wonder then, that there are those waiting and willing to use opportunistically whatever they can, in this case the tragic deaths and apparent insensitive disposal of childrens’ remains, to scorch then salt the earth. Justice can only be served by truth. The victims deserve nothing less.

childrens_home_nursery

With thanks to Twitter user @limerick1914 who has provided a fascinating compilation of the archives.

Update:

This post is not intended as either a defence of anything untoward which may have happened in the Toam home. It is simply applying a reasonable standard of criticism to hyperbolic narratives flying about the internet, based on publicly available sources.

The facts as we have them so far are these: there are records of 797 children dying over a 40 year period at The Home in Toam. Some bodies are known to exist in the site of a former water tank. We know the site was formerly a workhouse for famine victims. It is reasonable to request more evidence, be that forensic or some sort of archeological records in terms of work completed on the site which now contains part of a building site.

For those concerned with the fate of the deceased, a far more constructive step than venting online would be to donate to the St Jarlath’s Credit Union account set up for the purpose of receiving donations to the memorial fund which is one of the reasons why Catherine Corless broke her story. Incidentally she does not seek to lay the blame at the door of the Catholic Church – her reflections being far more nuanced. 

Screenshot 2014-05-29 10.33.57

Ever-mindful of the ninth commandment along with the precept of spreading light not heat, I’ve been giving some serious thought and prayer as to whether or not to write more about the Drewitt-Barlow couple, since discovering some rather unsavoury facts about them and being urged to go public by various friends.

What concerned me about the abuse that they threw my way the other night, is that despite having had no contact with them for two years the accusations that Barrie flung at me had a somewhat familiar ring, almost as if someone was feeding him via DM – in particular I found it fascinating that he decided to begin tweeting Joe Kelly, the editor at the Universe in an attempt to get me sacked.

Why would this former self-identifying ‘practicing Church of England member’, Essex celebrity and LGBT activist within the space of a few minutes know exactly whom to contact? It very much tallies in with a pattern of behaviour experienced by another gay man who has frantically contacted any organisation with whom I might be connected, urging them to drop me. Barrie Drewitt-Barlow boasts that he is a member of the ‘mafia’, a promotional poster for his new series uses that as the strapline and the Facebook page for their new series, The Parent Makers, contains the following boast:

“Certain things can only happen, when the right people are involved. When Barrie speaks, people in the IVF world listen, if they don’t hes been known to half their business with just a few cutting comments” Julia & Harry, Ipswich, Intended Parents, with twins on the way!

“Its not WHAT you know, its WHO you know, THE PARENT MAKERS really are like a Mafia! 

 

One of the reasons I have wondered whether or not to exercise prudence is because Barrie Drewitt-Barlow seems to have a volatile temper, judging by the way he liberally scatters horrific abuse on Twitter, needing only a hair-trigger to set him off, and also by his petulant displays of temper, showcased on his TV show. Back in 2006, Drewitt-Barlow was fined £90, which his partner described as a ‘slap on the wrist’ for making death threats towards parents who  believed they had been defrauded by a private school they had set up in Spain. Just at the beginning of this month, he emailed someone who admittedly used some inflammatory and provocative language, emphasising his rich privileged lifestyle and boasting that ‘my vast wealth and contacts will crush anyone’. Having used my photograph to allege that I am a racist and another man’s photo to allege that he is a pedophile, Drewitt-Barlow laughs that he has the money to afford a legal battle. Clearly, this man feels as though he is immune from and above the law.

It’s not difficult to come to the conclusion that Barrie-Drewitt Barlow displays several narcissistic tendencies along with several chips on his shoulder, a look through his twitter feed shows a pattern of self-promotion, boasts and abuse, the key themes being attacking anyone whom he believes is inferior by virtue of their looks, breeding or social class. For someone concerned with helping people to become parents through surrogacy, he displays a disturbing eugenic mindset, even going so far as to attack a photograph of a young toddler as being ‘gross’ and destined for a career working in McDonalds.

One could easily laugh off this vain, self-indulgent man with delusions of grandeur were it not for the fact that there are 5 young children involved and that he represents the face of gay parenting in the UK.

This review written about a previous series, My Weird and Wonderful Family, makes the point that there is no law about ‘f-ing your kids up’, Larkin-style, notes that Barrie loves his kids, but highlights his focus upon physical appearance.

When asked how they chose their donors, Barry said: ‘We originally went for a combination of looks and intelligence’, before looking pointedly at his slightly chubby daughter and adding, ‘but this time we’ll go for looks alone’

One has to wonder how healthy an environment this is for a young teenage girl growing up without a mother and four male siblings, or indeed for any of his children. Viewed in this context, along with his social media output, Barrie’s yelling at his son for not being a ‘gorgeous, designer child’ seems less and less amusing.

In this interview with Joanna Moorhead in the Guardian, Tony states how important it is that their children are themselves, that they shouldn’t have to live a lie, being themselves is the most important thing of all.

An admirable sentiment, but one has to wonder how this is commensurate with their withholding the information regarding their genetic parentage from their children. Stating that “I’ve got Daddy’s nose and Dad’s eyes” is surely a blatant piece of self-deception. Furthermore Orlando’s defensive response to his father’s taunting, “I AM designer and I AM gorgeous’ but defiantly rejecting any concern about his curly hair, confirms that  has been conditioned that his  sense of worth is based around the superficial.

Every single parent attempts to model their child into their version or interpretation of a responsible human being, if I were foolhardy enough to allow the cameras into my home, there would be many mutterings about religious indoctrination from the liberal cognoscenti, and the perceived imposition of religious views upon our children. If I was filmed impatiently telling my child that they ought to be more prayerful or respectful when they careered around the bedroom during bedtime prayers, that this is a time to be silent and talk to God, there would be an outcry from various quarters and allegations of emotional abuse.

“At the school Christmas party, he stole the part of the Fairy Godmother from one of the kids, and felt up the headmaster. Barrie is a gaudy monster plucked from the dark recesses of a Tennessee Williams play, as acted by Lily Savage or Bette Davis.”

In my previous post I mused over the control that would-be parents exercise over a woman’s body, Barrie has confirmed this by insisting that his children are born by cesarian section which carries more risks for the mother than a natural delivery, because ‘childbirth is like something out of Freddy Kreuger.’ Furthermore the mothers have little to no contact with their children (I have seen her yes, said Aspen in a dull monotone , not wishing to elaborate further, on TV this week)- potentially leaving their daughter to navigate the minefield of female puberty and menstrual cycles with no close female relative and a dad who believes that the whole business pertaining to natural female reproduction is all rather ghastly. One wonders what his son who was naturally conceived before Barrie realised he was gay,  and kept a secret from him for some years, makes of it all – does he feel a keen sense of genetic inferiority?

As I said, I am aware that there are 5 vulnerable children involved here, so I don’t want to say too much about my perceptions of the situation, however by constantly hauling their children around TV studios and inviting the TV cameras into their homes, whether that be for a style make-over programme of their daughter’s bedroom, or for several reality series, the Drewitt-Barlows are inviting people to form an opinion. The children are being turned into celebrities, given a label that will follow them their whole life and having their privacy invaded  without being able to give their informed consent. Barrie openly discusses their daughter’s sexuality and muses over which child of theirs is most likely to be gay, concluding that it will probably be their two year old son, the  public projection of a niche adult sexuality onto a small infant being of questionable taste.

One has to ask how fair this is upon the children themselves: most established celebrities have agreements with the press to pixellate out their children’s faces and do their best to bring them up out of the glare of the spotlight. One might have thought that this was the most sensible option for a couple who are keen to trailblaze for the cause of gay parenting. especially when you have gone on record to state that you fear your children are at risk from kidnap and media intrusion. One might also question the wisdom of disclosing that your children attended the same school as another potential kidnap target, Brooklyn Beckham, who was also their friend.

Indeed a brief google of this couple, reveals an embarrassment of material from which to choose, from placing photographs of their children on gay dating websites (post civil partnership), being banned from running any company directorships in the UK, allegations of fraud, their children’s Christening (although Barrie now denounces the Church of England for its homophobia) and alleged dodgy dealings, (including Barrie’s leading a sex education class in which he asked the children to think about gay Nazis) leaving behind a string of defrauded and outraged parents in Spain.

On Barrie’s facebook page he talks about the haters and protestors who he has been warned will attend his marriage blessing to Tony, leading him to up security and eliciting expressions of sympathy with them against the hateful bigots.

Alan Craig, an evangelical Christian and grass-roots campaigner, describes the situation somewhat differently, explaining how their PR agent had emailed him with the following blurb. “We… actively invite protesters to turn up and be interviewed” “Clearly the event was to be an exercise in spin, hype and mirrors.”, he noted, although he still took the opportunity to turn up and peacefully propose his point of view.

Screenshot 2014-05-29 12.19.55

This couple are never quick to allege homophobia and how difficult it is to be gay, Barrie quoted it as justification for his abusive Twitter rant, they have cited it for the reason why they moved their children to a private school (although one notes that the flexi-boarding facilities must come in handy in terms of their frequent trips to the States and Australia promoting the surrogacy business), and put in a complaint to the border agency about their homophobic treatment, when agency officials, puzzled by the documentation, questioned the feasibility of both of the men being biological fathers to all of the children.

A few months ago, they called the police after an elderly man in the Maldon branch of Tescos called them ‘a couple of queer boys’. The insult is not to be applauded, but one might have thought that this pair who proudly talk of their background growing up on “Manchester’s roughest council estate” had grown a thicker skin?Screenshot 2014-05-29 12.34.16

Screenshot 2014-05-29 12.34.06

But it’s okay to falsely name and shame others as being pedophiles and racists?

On the one hand Barrie constantly talks about homophobia and having to fight for the right to drink in gay bars, how life is impossible for them as gay dads (not the best advert for gay couples considering becoming parents), yet on the other, he describes his early life as follows: “As a teenager, Barrie was outrageous, growing up through the 80’s in the city centre of Manchester , Barrie was able to express himself in the way he wanted too. Being gay was never an issue for him and he was, as they say, loud and proud!” In this clip (in which incidentally they joke with their children about who is the most loved parent and who they would live with in the case of divorce) Barrie says that he was able to express his sexuality from the age of 13.

The reason I am devoting time to this issue is because the Drewitt-Barlows are being held up by the mainstream media and press as exemplary gay parents and talk about leading the way in terms of changing public attitudes to gay parenting. A 2010 survey in the now defunct Pink Paper, discusses how they have changed attitudes. They have over 137,000 Twitter followers, their own TV series and get sympathetic plugs in the Independent and Daily Mail about ‘ethical surrogacy’. Just the other day, standing in for Lorraine Kelly, Kate Garroway gushed over them and stated how great it was that attitudes towards same-sex parenting and surrogacy have changed, and various LGBT activists fawn over them and encourage their vital work. “Beware the surrogacy cowboys” shout the headlines!

Rivka Edelman from English Manif pour Tous puts her own take on who might be being misled here. Surrogacy advocates baulk at the notion that this is all about designer babies, accessories, babies for sale or children as commodities, but when Barrie comes out with quotes such as “you get what you pay for” such as he did when speaking to Julie Bindel, it doesn’t incline one to sympathy.

Both on his Twitter feed and in this clip, Barrie talks about how this is only a process for the rich – partly because they use California, one of the few places in the world where commercial surrogacy is legal, although they continue to lobby for it in the UK. They are happy to pay thousands to genetically select the sex of their next baby, already having the name picked out, and advise clients who are looking to select particular physical attributes for their child. It’s hard to think of children as being anything other than a rich couples’ accessory, when clients stride in demanding a checklist.

Screenshot 2014-05-27 22.01.04

Equality for all?

Barrie claims to be a ‘clinical social worker’, a highly specialised role which requires a specific set of qualifications and experience. It is concerning that someone with an alleged professed interest in child welfare, is happy to behave in such an abusive fashion to other people. Throwing violent temper tantrums, smashing up cakes, throwing things at his partner and storming out of a restaurant when he hasn’t got his own way, doesn’t demonstrate that he is able to exercise self-control nor does it model good behaviour for his children. Nor is verbally abusing an employee, by getting close up in their face and swearing at them, the behaviour one would like to experience from one’s boss. It’s not really surprising that his PA called for me to be urinated upon – which Barrie then endorsed.

Given that the Drewitt-Barlows were refused permission to adopt and state a sketchy knowledge of the process, (here on the Lorraine show they say that an adoption panel is made up of a vicar, a policeman and a housewife who are typically prejudiced) and Barrie has been accused of lying about his qualifications as a nurse, what grounds does he use to justify the title of ‘clinical social worker’?

In the case of the Drewitt Barlow’s application to adopt, they claim that the panel recommended that they spent some time helping out with children with special needs as they did not have experience with children, before being approved to adopt. Barrie and Tony then went on a cruise around the Med to think about it, whereupon the idea of surrogacy popped into place. They felt that the panel were treating them as ‘second class citizens’ only fit to look after ‘third class citizens’ instead of a healthy child. My understanding of adoption panels is that their decisions are not binding and they come to their conclusions based upon the reports and suggestions of social workers. Furthermore they are not random individuals but have specific experience and knowledge in this area. The Drewitt-Barlows were not refused permission to adopt, but asked to get more experience, which seems reasonable.

When I first became aware of them, living in the next-door village, my reaction was not one of homophobia, but the image jarred. Two men, looking after babies? How would they know what to do? What if they dropped the baby? Shouldn’t there be a mother.  My own experience of motherhood has taught me that men are of course more than capable of looking after babies, but that mother and baby enjoy a unique and special bond. The image of two men and a baby may no longer be so disconcerting (at the time we were influenced by media films, such as Jack and Sarah, Three men and a baby which portrayed men and childcare in a pretty sexist fashion) but it isn’t unreasonable or homophobic to want some evidence of experience in childcare for two men seeking to take sole custody of a child.

Surely a social worker would know this? What kind of ‘social work’ does Barrie do? From what’s been offered to the public it seems to be little more than running a CRB and credit check as well as briefing people on what to expect on their ‘journey’.

Despite the accusations of bigotry, I am not opposed to gay couples being approved as foster carers or adopters, so long as they are able to pass the relevant checks and vetting. Any couple who wishes to put themselves through the sacrifice involved in adopting a child who will, in all likelihood have some issues or problems, should be applauded for their altruism and commitment. Ideally a child ought to have a loving mum and dad, we know that life doesn’t always work out that way for them, but rather than this being framed around the issue of ‘gay rights’ children’s rights always ought to be put first. If a gay couple can provide a loving, stable home for a child and can be matched with a suitable child (and being in a same sex home doesn’t conflict with a child’s culture) and the alternative is languishing in a care home, then we should not be blinded by ideology. That said, the Catholic care homes should not have been forced to close. Their criteria that children should always have the complementarity of both sexes parenting is entirely reasonable.

We know that there are gay parents out there doing a worthy and admirable job. Any sensible and reasonable advocates of same-sex parenting ought to kick this pair into touch as the face of gay parents in the media.

They scream at accusations of exploitation and yet their very language when referring to a potential donor, “we won’t use her again”, betrays this notion. Barrie endorses abortion and others’ rights over a woman’s body stating that prospective parents have a right to abort, recommending clauses are inserted into the legal documentation compelling the gestational mother to abort should the baby be diagnosed as having a disability.

When Barrie is filmed fantasising about being massaged by a pair of male masseurs, moaning in delight, spending several nights going out wining and dining, getting drunk with z-list celebs, writhing round with pole-dancers and talking about kissing other men, it plays into every single negative stereotype about gay men and relationships and whether this really is a situation which should be encouraged. I wonder what would happen to low-income heterosexual couple who were found to have posted photographs of their children on swingers’ websites, one of whom appeared to manifest an anger-management problem?

Still perhaps I should not be protesting so much, this TV series showing the process  and mindsets of the men who wish to promote surrogacy and gay equality could prove every to be social conservative’s dream.

One might imagine that I am a seasoned veteran when it comes to invective and yet there was something about the abuse that Barrie threw at me which really unsettled my peace of mind. I was not alone, others wrote to me expressing similar spiritual disquiet and offering prayer. Most significant was an email from a gay man who had always been loosely supportive of surrogacy but said that having witnessed this behaviour, it had really hammered home the true nature of the business. Like me, he was so disturbed by what he had witnessed, that he had trouble sleeping. Others on my Facebook have urged that the various media reports ought to be assembled and disseminated.

I await the threats and lawsuits.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,692 other followers