‘The sad thought is that our mother from birth until she was 17 was a nonentity’

The exclusion from the Government’s Mother and Baby Institutional Payment Scheme of up to 24,000 people who spent less than 180 days of residency in these awful institutions and are excluded from redress is wholly unfair, writes PAUL MURPHY. The Meath Chronicle reporter whose late mother, Bridget was a resident in one of these homes for a number of years, believes the Government must be made to reverse its decision

In the normal day-to-day world of journalism my current “beat” is the local district courts, county council affairs and the coroner’s court and some other news items as they arise.. Just like other journalists in the county I try to bring the latest news to the readers in an objective and fair fashion.

This week I am writing from the heart in solidarity with the 24,000 people who have, in my view, been unfairly excluded from the Government’s Mother and Baby Institutional Payment Scheme. The scheme provides for financial payments and health supports to eligible people who spent time in a mother and baby or county home institution in Ireland. Readers may remember that the redress scheme arose out of the report of the Commission of Investigation (officially the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and certain related matters). It was originally scheduled to issue its final report by February 2018 but it was granted a series of extensions and the final report arrived in 2021, detailing that around 9,000 children – one in seven of those born in the 18 institutions covered by the commission’s terms of reference, had died in them between 1922 and 1998, double the rate of infant mortality in the general population. On 13th January 2021 Taoiseach Micheal Martin made a formal apology to survivors on behalf of the State.

The commission was subsequently dissolved in February 2021.

We have to thank amateur historian Catherine Corless for unearthing this scandal by researching into babies born at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co Galway. Publication of her findings was followed by calls for an investigation of the site and for an investigation into all such institutions. It has taken a very long time to come to the stage where we now find ourselves. In 2014 the Government announced that it was bringing together representatives of Government departments to investigate the deaths at Tuam and how to tackle the issue. The cost of setting up the independent commission was estimated at approximately €21m.

I have a direct interest in the issue because my late mother Bridget, was a resident in one of these homes for a number of years. She was of Dublin stock and could trace her roots back to Wood Quay, the site of Viking settlement. Her mother Jane, a tailoress, was born in 1870. A family tragedy followed in 1905 when she died at the age of 36, leaving behind her husband John Travers, two sons Nicholas and Jack and my mother (then nine months old). Considering what support services might have been available in the early 20th century (practically none) a grief stricken John Travers placed his children in orphanages.

Bridget was placed in the Good Shepherd orphanage at Irishtown in New Ross, Co Wexford and the two boys at St Joseph’s Industrial School in Artane Dublin. Although the 1911 census listed many “inmates” of that institution (with descriptions including religion, literacy skills and occupation, mainly “laundress”, and marital status, all single) the enumerators were obviously under instruction not to record the children’s identity or status so Bridget is not listed there. There was no census in 1921 because of unrest in the country. The 1926 census will not be available to view until 2027. The sad thought is that our mother from birth until she was 17 was a nonentity.

In 2019, her daughter (my sister) visited the site of the orphanage in New Ross which is now a secondary school and was made most welcome by the principal there and was told they have many enquiries about the orphanage. The religious order who operated the orphanage have refused to hand over any records so there are no means of tracing the history of children who were there (another scandal). When my mother was about 12 she was told by a nun to go down to the parlour where she saw a tiny woman (the late Jane’s sister, known to us as Aunt B) who looked her up and down but then went away.

Paul’s mother, Bridget was placed at the Good Shepherd orphanage at Irishtown in New Ross, Co Wexford.

She returned later and on Easter Sunday 1916 she took Bridget from the orphanage. Because the Rising had broken out all trains were cancelled and Bridget and her young charge had to sleep on the railway station platform. When they were able to resume their journey Bridget and young Bridget travelled to Dublin where the two boys were collected and all three were brought to Dundalk to be reunited with their father John who set up a cobbler’s business at Bridge Street. John (or Jack as we knew him) was trained as a cobbler and later took over the business when his father died in 1951. Nicholas had a skill as a tailor. He was the one who went out for a few drinks on a Saturday night and found out the next morning – via a detachment of British troops from the local barracks – that he had signed himself into the British forces. He later served with the RAF in WW2 and on demobilisation set himself up in a tailoring business in Putney, London. Bridget attended the local school at Castletown, Dundalk until 1918 when she was taken away from it on the outbreak of the Spanish flu epidemic. She became a little housekeeper and sometimes cobbler at that tender age, later marrying my father James from Haggardstown. They went on to have six children including myself and lived first in Dundalk but later in Drogheda. Both my parents are deceased. To my regret I never got to interview my mother about her time in the orphanage, however painful that might have been for both of us. The only chink in those forbidding walls came many years ago when she told my sister “You’ll never know the terrible time I had in that place”.

When the redress scheme was announced it came as welcome news for many people who had been in these institutions. However, the terms of the scheme excluded 24,000 people, largely former child residents/”inmates” of the institutions who spent less than 180 days of residency and those from a small number of institutions that have been excluded from all access to redress. Last year Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman went before an Oireachtas committee to defend his decision to exclude 24,000 people from the scheme on the basis that it would cost an extra €300 million to the €800 million cost of the scheme.

Now let us turn to Ireland’s economic and social place in Europe and the world. By all measures we are regarded as a rich country. In terms of attraction for high value foreign direct investment (FDI) we rank highly – we attract investments projects characterised by high knowledge intensity, and economic value added such as life sciences and information and communications technology. In the global GDP per capita tables Ireland ranks 2nd of 192 in International Monetary Fund tables and fourth of 187 in the World Bank rating.

The total Irish Government budget for 2024 is €96.6 billion.

There are some comparisons to be made here. Let me be clear here – I am wholly in favour of our Government’s policy on giving shelter to people who are running from war and terror. It is our duty to do so. That comes at a cost, currently running at more than €42 million each month on the rental, management, and maintenance of accommodation centres for asylum seekers (May 2023 figures).

The Good Shepherd orphanage at Irishtown in New Ross, Co Wexford.

How can we justify excluding 24,000 Irish citizens, born in Ireland in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, many of them orphans, and placed in these institutions, from the Mother and Baby Redress Scheme? I cannot for the life of me understand how the Oireachtas agreed to this and how it was signed into law. It cries out for justice and we – all of us – must raise our voices in order to persuade the Government to reverse its decision, to act in a moral and ethical way to its own citizens.

If you feel strongly enough about this issue, raise your voice, contact me through the Meath Chronicle offices and platforms. The Government won’t change its mind unless all citizens, irrespective of political or religious persuasion, shout loud enough.