Babies of unmarried parents were treated as “an inferior sub-species” for decades in Ireland, Irish prime minister Enda Kenny has admitted, as a State inquiry was announced into religious-run institutions used to house pregnant mothers.
A special commission of investigation will examine the high mortality rates at the so-called mother and baby homes for much of the 20th century, the burial practices at these sites and also secret and illegal adoptions and vaccine trials on children.
It is thought about 35,000 unmarried mothers spent time in 10 homes run by religious orders in Ireland.
The inquiry has been ordered after massive national and international focus on the story of one home, run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours in Tuam, Co Galway, where the remains of 796 infants are believed to be buried.
Some lie in the remnants of what was once a concrete septic tank in the grounds of the home.
Mr Kenny said the inquiry will probe the shameful past of Irish society rather than apportion blame to any particular quarter.
“This was Ireland of the (19)20s to the 60s - an Ireland that might be portrayed as a glorious and brilliant past, but in its shadows contained all of these personal cases, where people felt ashamed, felt different, were suppressed, dominated and obviously the question of the treatment in the mother and babies homes is a central part of that,” he said.
The Taoiseach said there was a broader question to be answered about the kind of society Ireland was from the foundation of the Free State until the early 1960s.
“This essentially is about the kind of country Ireland was, the kind of country where women in particular were the focus of shame and suppression,” he said.
Mr Kenny said babies born out of wedlock “were deemed to be an inferior sub-species”.
Dublin’s Children’s Minister Charlie Flanagan has been charged with determining the scope of the inquiry, in consultation with survivors, campaigners, organisations involved and parliamentarians.
The setting up of the inquiry follows the exposure of horrific levels of clerical abuse in dioceses around Ireland by priests; the abuse over several decades of children in institutions, orphanages, industrial schools; and the use of state-sanctioned, church-run Magdalene laundries for destitute women.
“I believe that Tuam should not be looked at in isolation because over the last century we have had mother and baby homes right up and down the country,” Mr Flanagan said.
“It’s absolutely essential that we establish the facts and in this regard it’s a time for sensitivity rather than sensationalism, a time for seeking the truth rather than indulging in speculation.”
Mr Flanagan told RTE Radio the inquiry will be formally established after a cross departmental review of files in relation to mother and baby homes reports back to Government by the end of the month.
Outside of Tuam three other mother and baby homes have little angels plots believed to hold the remains of another 3,200 babies and infants. They are Sean Ross Abbey, Tipperary - where the story of Philomena Lee began - Bessborough, Co Cork, and Castlepollard, Co Westmeath.
Infant mortality rates ranged from 30-50% in some of the homes in the 1930s and 1940s.
As part of the inquiry the Catholic and Protestant churches that had any involvement with the homes, or links to religious orders which ran them, are to be asked to open all their records.
Health authorities were given files from many orders after the institutes closed.
Mr Flanagan said he would like the inquiry to be carried out in public even though documents which are private and personal would have to be examined.
“I’m seeking national consensus and I’m asking people to buy into this process so we at last get to the truth,” the minister said.
Opposition leaders have demanded counselling services be set up for the survivors of the homes and other traumatised by them.
Ashley Balbirnie, chief executive of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC), said it feared the Tuam revelations are just the tip of the iceberg.
“We as a society are judged by how we treat children,” he said.
“We need to learn from the past and treat our children with the respect and dignity that is their right.”
Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, said the inquiry is a first step in establishing the truth about the mothers and babies homes.
“Uncovering the dark history of how we treated unmarried mothers and their children is vital for us to truly acknowledge and understand our past,” she said.
“This is the missing piece of the jigsaw.