Women who were sent to homes for unmarried mothers in Ireland want genocide prosecutions to be brought after human remains were found at a centre where the bodies of almost 800 infants may have been dumped.
The 63 members of Irish First Mothers, who range in age from their early forties to their late seventies, have written to Ireland’s attorney-general alleging that the state-sanctioned and mostly religious-run homes violated genocide laws by causing them serious bodily and mental harm through mass internment and forcible removal of their children. They want the religious groups involved to face prosecution.
The letter follows the discovery of a “significant” number of infant remains in a septic tank on the site of a former home in Tuam, Co Galway. The discovery became public late last week. It follows claims made by a historian in 2014 that death certificates had been issued for 796 babies at the home but that they had been buried without record of ceremony. The home operated from 1925 to 1961.
None of the women in Irish First Mothers were residents at Tuam, but they believe that the development highlights widespread abuses at similar homes. Most of the women allege that they were pressured or forced into giving up their babies for adoption and three infants born to the women died while in the homes.
The Catholic Church ran many of Ireland’s social services in the 20th century, including mother and baby homes where tens of thousands of unmarried pregnant women, including rape victims, were sent to give birth. Infant mortality rates in the homes far exceeded the national average.
“It is the religious mindset of the perpetrator, not the victim, which is pertinent to genocide,” the letter from the group to Máire Whelan, the attorney-general, said. “We assert that their intent was to destroy us as a religious cohort by every and all social and quasi-legal available means. The perpetrators were motivated by their own Catholic ideological characterisation of us as a religiously defined caste of so-called fallen women.”
Kathy McMahon, founder of Irish First Mothers and a former resident of a home run by nuns, said that it was important that accountability was not delayed. “The dead are not going anywhere, but the mothers who are living with the trauma of what happened to them need to see justice done in their lifetime,” she said.
Ms McMahon claims that in 1974 her first baby was taken from her shortly after birth and she was later pressured into signing adoption papers.
“None of us will ever forget that time in our lives, but having answers will allow the elderly mothers to pass away with some clarity on what occurred in those homes,” she said.
Sharon McGuigan, another member of the group, gave birth to a girl while in the same home as Ms McMahon.
She has not been able to make contact with her daughter since, she claims, she was forced by her parents to sign adoption papers. “It shattered my confidence and caused me years of depression,” she said. “It even prevents you bonding properly with the children you might have later.”
If Ms Whelan refuses to support the women’s case or deems it inadmissable in an Irish court, the group will appeal to the United Nations Human Rights Commission to ask if prosecutions for genocide in the International Criminal Court are possible.
The discovery of the remains had brought the issue into the open “and there is going to be much more,” Ms McGuigan said. “We have to have accountability, whether it is elements of church or state which are responsible.”