Tuam babies: How the English ‘sent back’ unmarried mothers to Ireland

In the first in a new series of blogpost,  Policy Press take an in-depth look behind the headlines, talking to experts to discover more about the story behind the headlines.

We spoke to Policy Press author and academic Paul Michael Garrett, whose book Social work and Irish people in Britain looked at the plight of ‘unmarried mothers’ in Ireland between the 1920s – 1960 ten years ago, long before media attention was focused on Tuam…

International media attention has been captivated by the ‘scandal’ uncovered by local Irish historian suggesting that as many as 796 dead babies had been discarded in a ‘septic tank’ at the Tuam Mother and Baby home in County Galway between the 1920s and the 1960s.  

In response Prime Minister Enda Kenny has commissioned an investigation into all the Mother and Baby homes that were once in operation in Ireland.

But are there questions we need to be asking ourselves back on English shores too?

Policy Press author and Galway-based Paul Michael Garrett has researched the women who fled to England from the Irish state partly because they feared possible ‘incarceration’ in in the Mother and Baby homes.

Speaking to Policy Press on the subject he said: “Many women would get on the ferry to Holyhead, present themselves to adoption agencies in Britain and would find themselves being repatriated, sent back to Ireland, in some instances before they gave birth, in some instances after.”

Garrett’s book, ‘Social work and Irish people in Britain’, suggests that fear of having to enter one of the Mother and Baby homes in Ireland was one reason for the historical phenomena that saw hundreds of Irish expectant mothers migrate to England between the 1920s and 1960s.

Garrett said: “Whereas in England you might expect to stay in a home for, say, three months, in Ireland this was much more likely to be a period closer to two years. It simply wasn’t possible to cover up the reasons for that sort of period of absence.”

Fleeing to England offered these women the opportunity to have their baby in secret and then return to their lives in Ireland.  But Garrett explains there were strong forces in operation in Britain, which were keen to drive these women back.

Garrett said: “Often English agencies wouldn’t want the economic burden of dealing with the pregnant women and their babies and the Irish agencies didn’t want the children brought up in Protestant homes.”

Figure highlights how many women were ‘repatriated’: Garrett 2003:30

Figure highlights how many women were ‘repatriated’: Garrett 2003:30

Garrett says that the women were subject to coercion. Garrett’s chapter in the book which deals with ‘PFIs’ – Pregnant From Ireland – a known and accepted term with English social workers at that time – shares the stories of many of the women such as ‘Bridget’.

A young cinema worker, ‘Bridget’ presented herself to the English authorities for help, having discovered she was pregnant. Despite speaking in the strongest terms against the Mother and Baby home in Castlepollard, describing it as ‘just like a prison’, she was pressurised to return to Ireland and give birth there. Knowing that Bridget was terrified of her father finding out about her pregnancy, the English social worker used the threat of telling him about her condition as a means of making her comply.

This is one amongst a number of stories that Garrett came across in his research and included in his book. The plight of these women is one that he feels passionately should be more widely known and he welcomed both the media interest and the forthcoming inquiry.

Garrett said: “It’s a part of women’s history and Irish history that has been neglected.”

“I think it is entirely advantageous that a voice has been found for those dubbed ‘unmarried mothers’.”

As reports on the Tuam babies have suggested, infant mortality rates in the Mother and Baby homes in Ireland were high and the gap in mortality rates between legitimate and illegitimate children was higher in Ireland than in neighbouring countries. In 1931/32 one in every four illegitimate infants died within the first year of life in Ireland.

Garrett is reluctant to draw the direct conclusion that the high infant mortality rate encouraged the women to flee to England, rather than go into the Mother and Baby homes, though he hopes the official Inquiry into the homes will cast some light on this disparity and why it existed. He said: “Although a number of the deaths were from outbreaks of diseases, it seems to me that some deaths were the result of neglectful care in the homes.”

However Garrett expressed some caution about the media attention.

He said: “The attention could be problematic – the focus on the “septic tank” and what it is conveying about Ireland can tap into strains of anti-Catholicism. I would be worried if the spotlight is entirely focused on the Church because the situation is far more complex.”

There was a threefold system in Ireland to deal with ‘unmarried mothers’ – the Church-run Mother and Baby homes forming one part, but a greater number of women were resident in the County Homes and Magdalen Asylums – the former was local authority-run and the Church did not have any say over them.

Garrett said: “The focus can’t just be on Mother and Baby homes – it’s just too easy to focus on the wrong-doings of the Church.”

Garrett feels that there are some parallels to be drawn between the then migration of pregnant women taking the ferry to England to have their child adopted, and the women who today travel by budget airlines for terminations. Both are cloaked in secrecy. He said: “In some senses this is about Ireland seeking to export difficulties – social policy questions that are not answered internally can be exported in this way.”

But Garrett, located at the National University of Ireland in Galway for the past ten years, warns against seeing this as a story of victimisation. He said: “It would be wrong to conceive of the women who made these journeys as malleable and compliant – many were tenacious and wouldn’t be manipulated by the agencies. Equally, many were grateful for the assistance they received from the agencies too. It is quite a complex picture and my hope is that the report illuminates some of these issues.”

Social work and Irish people in Britain by Paul Michael Garrett is available on the Policy Press website at £19.99 (20% discount on RRP)

By the same author

Social work and social theory

Children and families

1 Response to “Tuam babies: How the English ‘sent back’ unmarried mothers to Ireland”

  1. 1 Top 10 most popular blog posts from 2014 | The Policy Press Blog Trackback on December 22, 2014 at 3:50 pm

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