The shadow of Ireland's past: Catholic state to liberal Republic?
Illustration: Ruby Gray

In a university environment, reminders of progressive leaps the Republic of Ireland has taken over the last few years are everywhere.

Bathroom doors are scribbled with victorious messages from the aftermath of the 2015 equal marriage referendum, and a ‘Repeal the Eighth’ jumper is never far from sight. There is a feeling of pride—and perhaps some dignity— that while Britain was pondering about Brexit and Trump was elected in the United States, Irish voters were taking steps forward rather than backward. This created a new Irish identity of progression in national and international media. In 2015, crowds gathered to hear the results of the marriage referendum in Dublin Castle. When it was announced that same-sex marriage would be legalised, one man who was born and raised in Ireland said that it was the ‘first time [he] actually felt Irish.’ 

However, the ideas of Ireland and ‘Irishness’ today are complex. Outside of the urban university bubble, how much has the country changed socially from the conservatism and oppression of the 20th century? 

In the media, two images of ‘Irishness’ have been created in recent years. The Ireland ashamed of the legacy her past, and the country that prides itself on progressiveness. 

Historic Institutions

The Magdalene Laundries, or Mother and Baby Homes, are one of many institutions that Irish people feel ashamed of today. The first of these institutions were founded in England in the mid-1700s, but when the rest of the English-speaking world phased out large-scale institutional care at the beginning of the 20th century, Ireland stayed behind.

These institutions served as a way for the Catholic Church and the State (which were practically the same throughout the 20th century) to police the idea of ‘Irishness,’ this time in relation to women’s sexualities, bodies, and choices. Young and unmarried women, usually in their late teens and twenties but sometimes as young as 13, were often forced into the homes if they became pregnant.

Sex outside of marriage and illegitimate children were considered deeply shameful in the staunchly Catholic society of 19th and 20th century Ireland, to such an extent that these young women and girls —so-called “fallen women”—  were often sent to institutions by their own families. They spent years in religious servitude and doing hard manual labour as penance, while the fathers had no responsibility and faced no consequences. 

Voices from the Magdalene Laundries reveal the horrific treatment these women faced. A woman called Mary Merritt faced 26 years of abuse in institutions run by the Catholic Church and nuns from various religious orders. She was sent to a Magdalene Laundry at 16 for stealing apples. On arrival, she was stripped of her name, her hair, and later lost sight in one eye due to the toxic chemicals used in the Laundry. After being raped by a priest, she was sent to St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home in Dublin. Her daughter was put up for adoption without her consent, as was the custom in the homes. She was allowed just half an hour with her baby before she was taken away.

Another survivor who gave the pseudonym Martha (the name given to her in the home when she was stripped of her real name), described what she witnessed in the home as a child. ‘I saw [the nuns] one day with a woman unconscious on the floor. They just lifted her away by the legs and the arms. I didn’t know then what I probably think happened now.’

She came to experience abuse from the nuns herself. “She [a nun] put [my] head into the water and kept putting it down and bringing it up and putting it down and bringing it up, I thought I couldn’t breathe.”  Every survivor of these homes and other institutions have their own horror stories of the abuse they experienced from those in power. 

The most well-known Mother and Baby Home (sometimes referred to as the Home) opened in 1925 in Tuam, Co. Galway. The word Tuam alone and its associated horrors have infamous notoriety across Ireland and abroad. In 2017, the remains of up to 800 babies and children were discovered buried in an unmarked former septic tank. The discovery came to be known as ‘the Tuam Babies’. Children born in these homes were illegitimate, which meant the Church and many people in society believed that these children were shameful. The shame led to them being put up for adoption at best or at worse, starved, and buried in mass unmarked graves.  

Even though the scandal became international news, it’s a part of our history that’s always confined to the past. Many people are astonished to hear that the last Mother and Baby Home in Bessborough, Co. Cork, finally closed in 1998 within the lifetime of most university students.

Remembering the past as we take steps forward

There can be a disconnect between the Ireland of today, and the country that punished, oppressed, and abused women for their sexuality in the name of Catholic morality at the time. This feeling is amplified by other, more recent moments in Irish history that received international media attention. 

In 2018, Ireland voted to remove the 8th Amendment from the Irish Constitution. The infamous amendment, known as ‘the 8th‘, was introduced following a referendum in 1983. It gave the constitutional and legal equal right to the life of the mother and foetus. The devastating ramifications of this amendment were evident just four months after the people of Ireland voted in its favour.

Ann Lovett, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, died following a stillbirth in a grotto just outside her hometown in Granard, Co. Longford. She had tried to conceal her entire pregnancy. In the afternoon of 31st January 1984, she left school alone and made her way to a nearby grotto to give birth on her own. She was found a while later, bleeding heavily. Her infant son had already died and Ann died later that day in hospital. In the following days, The Gay Byrne Radio Show dedicated their entire schedule to reading letters from women who had also felt the need to conceal their pregnancies. The silence that followed was deafening. As Christy Moore wrote in the first line of the song he wrote in her memory, “everybody knew, nobody said“.

Horrific stories such as Lovett’s, or the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 from complications following a miscarriage, were central in the debate about abortion in Ireland. 

“There can be a disconnect between the Ireland of today, and the country that punished, oppressed and abused women for their sexuality in the name of Catholic morality at the time”

After years of campaigning from both ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ activists, the referendum passed with 66.4% of votes in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment and 33.6% against. This was an immense victory for Irish women and a signal towards a more liberal Republic. It also acted as an example of how Ireland had progressed socially in recent decades and it was a great source of national pride. In just three decades, the Irish people had voted to legalise access to abortion services by a similar margin that enacted a constitutional ban on the same issue in 1983.

The 2018 referendum to Repeal the 8th echoed the same-sex marriage referendum of 2015. The people of Ireland voted 62.1% in favour and 37.9% against. The magnitude of the result was the first indicator that a significant social shift was emerging in Ireland. The society that until recent decades was mostly controlled by the Catholic Church was now voting in direct opposition to its dogma. 

Ireland’s past casts a shadow on these moments of progression, but so does the present. The Catholic Church has a long history of control in Ireland and although a lot of its grip has been lost, it retains an influence on some people’s beliefs in many parts of the country. 

The areas with the highest population of non-Catholics (other religions or those without religion) are more urban areas. The Church still holds significant influence over a lot of rural Ireland, which is reflected in the constituencies that had the highest number of votes against repealing the 8th Amendment. 

It must be stressed that there hasn’t necessarily been a harmonious or unanimous move towards a more progressive Ireland— and this is often left out of the narrative. Most Irish people are ashamed of the institutionalised abuse that lasted centuries. The desire to create distance between the past and the present might be an explanation for the new Irish identity that has been pushed by the media. 

There is more to change

Beyond the disparity between urban and rural Ireland, there is a general consensus that Ireland has moved past oppressive institutions and hiding people who are not deemed ‘Irish’ enough by those in charge. The cracks in this view have been exposed in recent months. Ireland has a new “institution” — the Direct Provision system. 

Set up in 2000 as a temporary measure, Direct Provision offers accommodation, food, and a weekly allowance of just €38.80 to asylum seekers awaiting refugee status confirmation. The system was put in place at a time when many Irish people felt the country was being too generous to asylum seekers. The conditions have been described as inhumane, humiliating, and an accused violation of human rights.

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in the United States, Leo Varadkar (then Taoiseach), responded to criticism about the Direct Provision system. He said “It’s a service provided for by the state with free accommodation, food, heat, light, healthcare, education, and some spending money. It is not the same thing as a man being killed by the police.” As part of this statement, the then-Taoiseach did recognise and acknowledge the need for change.

It has been argued that the quality of the system is intended to discourage asylum seekers from using the service, an idea that harks back to the workhouses that came before and of course, the Mother and Baby Homes. Despite the progressive social changes in recent years, Direct Provision serves as a reminder that the country has not come as far as is believed. Rather, it seems the oppressed demographic has changed. Although the government have issued apologies for the injustices of the past, the sincerity of their regret could come into question when we see reminiscences of the past today.  

The shadow of Ireland’s conservative past has begun to seep into even the most liberal environments, and this may be a positive thing.  The idea of Irish people as wholly progressive is not only inaccurate but damaging to the people who have suffered and continue to experience oppression first-hand, such as those in Direct Provision and all marginalised groups within Irish society. 

A large number of people are unaware that Direct Provision exists, and many are oblivious to the horrific conditions many asylum seekers face in the country. That being said, the recent surge in support for the global anti-racist movement has had its impact in Ireland too. People have finally started to notice the racism on their door-step, and the movement for the abolition of Direct Provision has gained a lot of support. The new coalition Government have said that they intend to abolish Direct Provision over the lifetime of the new Dáil. If they are serious about this intention, it might be a step towards correcting the wrongs of the past. But as of right now, the situation continues. 

It seems that Irish people often look to the past to understand and contextualise what ‘Irishness’ means today. But it is equally important to look at the ways in which the same mistakes could be happening once more. In order to evolve and be comfortable with the sentiment of what modern ‘Irishness’ feels like, the past needs to be spoken about. The actions of those in power and the prejudices held by people in society need to change— so that no more marginalised people in Ireland are hidden from view.  

Other sources: Redmond, The Adoption Machine, Una Mullally, Repeal the 8th (London, 2018), Liam Thornton ‘The Rights of Others: Asylum Seekers and Direct Provision in Ireland.’ Irish Community Development in Law Journal (2014)