Unquiet Graves

The suffering inflicted on generations of women and children by Catholic Religious Orders in Ireland also resulted in vast profits for these organisations, reports Francis Donohoe.

The Catholic Religious orders who ran the huge network of institutions which incarcerated tens of thousands of marginalised working class women and children across the Republic of Ireland during the 20th century most likely made massive profits from their activities.

For incarcerating young mothers and their infants as well as women and children who it was declared had transgressed Catholic morality these institutions – the Mother and Baby Homes, Magdalene Laundries and Industrial Schools – were paid monies by the State. It has been estimated that the Bon Secours Sisters who ran the Tuam Mother and Baby Home in County Galway, which appears to have operated an unofficial mass grave where the remains of several hundred infants and toddlers were deposited, were paid the equivalent in today’s terms of €€110 a week for the maintenance of the children under its control.

Musing on Twitter why the nuns in Tuam deposited infant bodies in unconsecrated ground that also housed a septic tank the RTE journalist Philip Boucher Hayes stated: “The possible answers swing from [an] attitude of casual disrespect towards their young charges, right up to something entirely more sinister.” An outstanding issue being did monies continue to be collected from the State for children who had died either through illness, neglect or other actions.

The Orders operating the Mother and Baby’s homes also made large sums from the selling of children for adoption to families in the United States. This practice is believed to have continued into the 1980s. Profits were also generated from pharmaceutical companies using the children for vaccine trials.

Whether many of the adoptions resulted from the abduction of children from their mothers is an issue still to be fully investigated. A recent HSE report prepared after an examination of documents from Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in County Cork, which was run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, expressed concerns that death records were falsified at the institution so children could “be brokered in clandestine adoption arrangements” in Ireland and abroad.

The HSE also expressed concerns in 2012 that up to 1,000 children may have been “trafficked” to the US from the Tuam Mother and Baby Home in “a scandal that dwarfs other, more recent issues with the Church and State”.

Women incarcerated in the network of Magdalene laundries which operated until the 1990s were worked by the Orders as free labour. In 2011 the producers of ‘The Forgotten Maggies’, a documentary where women incarcerated in the laundries recounted their harrowing experiences of forced labour and cruelty, revealed the contents of a copy book they had received which lists the names of companies that gave money to a Magdalene Laundry for services over a six-month period in the 1980s.

According to the information in the book the management of the laundry was making £900 on average a week. Ger Boland, one of the documentary’s producers, said: “On top of this [the nuns] were getting funded by the State and weren’t even paying the workers.”

Children and young women incarcerated in the Magdalene Laundries were meant to receive education there. However, in the documentary, survivors explain that these commercial entities provided little or no education, acting instead as sweatshops and a source of cheap labour, where those who didn’t comply were “sent to a mental hospital”.

The widespread nature of Government Departments and semi-state companies’ business relations with these institutions was confirmed by an inter-departmental committee report into the Magdalene Laundries published in 2013.

At the time SIPTU Organiser, Ethel Buckley, said: “It is clear from the report that certain institutions and businesses, including some state enterprises, profited from the forced extraction of labour from these women. The Government must now ensure that the institutions responsible, whatever their status, are made to pay for the forced labour of these women.”

She added: “It should also not be ignored that there was a clear class dimension to the exploitation and abuse.”

It is unclear at the time of writing if a detailed analysis of what financial profits generated by Catholic Religious Orders through the operation of their network of institutions will be undertaken by the Government Commission now examining the Mother and Baby Home scandal.

Currently the Bon Secours Sisters run the largest private for profit hospital group in the Republic of Ireland. The order opened its first hospital in 1951, in Glasnevin, Dublin, and the group now also operates hospitals in Galway, Limerick, Cork and Tralee, as well as a care village in Cork. The Order also holds a vast property portfolio in Ireland and Europe.
People Before Profit TD Brid Smith, has called for the Bon Secour order to disband and hand over the operations of its hospitals to the State.


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