Opinion: No country for an unmarried woman expecting a baby

Almost a century ago, in 1924, the large broadsheet colourless front page of the Meath Chronicle ran a story down its right-hand column, headlined ‘Social Problem’. In the style of the day, the sub headlines read ‘Children Born Out Of Wedlock’, ‘How to Deal With Them’; ‘Cognate Problem of Unmarried Mother’; ‘Important Discussion at Meath Board of Health’.

The report went on to tell us that a special meeting of the Meath Board of Health was held at An Uaimh to consider communication from the Local Government Department dealing with the admission and discharge of unmarried mothers in the county homes, and pointing out that to legally retain such children in the homes, the scheme would have to be amended.

This was at a time when the new Irish State was coming into being, after the tumultuous events of the War of Independence and Civil War of the early 1920s. Clearly, the new Free State was far from enlightened when it came to the matter of women who found themselves pregnant outside of marriage, with a horrendous attitude adopted towards these ‘fallen’ and habitual’ offenders.

At least, the new Local Government Department was good enough to decide that the county homes were “for aged, infirm and chronic patients. It doesn’t include children.” It also urged the advisability of boarding out such children where possible.

One member, a Mr Reilly, suggested that the unmarried mothers “should have an institution for themselves, isolated in two divisions, one for the habituals and the other for girls whose first fall it was”.

“They should be trained to earn their living and situations found for them, away from where they were known, thus giving them a chance to make good,” he said.

Astonishingly, the ‘chairman’, a Mrs Murray, said her idea was that “if they could take over one of the unoccupied workhouses as a home for these unmarried mothers and the children – not merely for Meath, but for a couple of the adjoining counties as well, or perhaps the whole of Leinster.

“In that institution, all of the laundry work for the other institutions could be done. They could get over the existing law as regards separating the mother from the child in that way: they could have them separated in the one institution.”

By the 1930s, the State found a solution to the problem of what to do with these 'fallen' women and their children.

In May 1933, Mrs Crofts, a local government inspector, wrote to the Superior General of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary to ask if the congregation would consider opening a third mother and baby home in Ireland, in the diocese of Meath (the congregation already ran Bessborough and Sean Ross). Early in 1935, the congregation purchased Castlepollard, for £5,000.

Bishop Mulvaney of Meath had given his blessing to the new home and was confident that such an institution would give women a chance to ‘re-establish themselves in life’ and ‘induce them to accept responsibility for the maintenance of their children’. The Meath board agreed to support a scheme where women from County Meath would be admitted to Castlepollard if it meant the ‘redemption’ of those ‘unfortunate girls’.

It is beyond comprehension today that such an attitude could have existed, but the Ireland of most of the 20th century, was a cruel, horrible, hypocritical place, and all those women - and their children - living and dead, who were treated in such a manner, now deserve to have that wrong put right, their voices heard, and their wishes granted, with immediate effect.

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