Shameful Treatment of Women


By Domhnall de Barra

Ireland’s religious institutions are in the news again for all the wrong reasons. This time it has to do with the illegal adoption of babies born to unmarried mothers in the middle of the last century. The stories that are emerging are frightening, to say the least, and cast a further dark shadow on the nations treatment of women. It is inconceivable to think that an unmarried mother of a new-born baby would be told by the nuns that her child had died while arrangements were being made to give that baby to a couple who wanted to adopt, but that is what happened in certain cases.

To compound matters there was no formal adoption process as the adoptive parents registered the birth in their own names with the sanction of the clergy. Not only was this immoral, it was totally illegal. Every person has a right to know where they came from and this was denied to so many people. The practice was so widespread that it could not have succeeded without the collusion of the authorities who turned a blind eye. Ads were placed in the papers looking for suitable Catholic couples to adopt  and there was a lively trade in selling babies to wealthy people from the USA.

We already know that some of these unfortunate women had spent  many months of their pregnancies in slave labour at laundries run by the nuns. Can anyone imagine the suffering they went through especially to hear that their baby had died. It was unforgivable but maybe there are some facts to be taken into consideration. The world was a far different place in the Ireland of the last century. Women were not treated as equal beings and their roles were clearly defined. Men worked outside the house and had nothing to do with housework or the rearing of children. A man would not be seen dead pushing a pram. He expected his meals on the table on time and his washing and ironing done. His wife was to obey his every command and he was entitled to his conjugal rights which she could not refuse. If a woman worked for the state, as a teacher or other civil service, she had to give up her job if she got married.

The Church was very powerful at the time when almost every household went to Mass and the Sacraments. It was obsessed with sin and the fires of hell and the greatest sin of all was sexual contact outside marriage. Even sex within marriage was frowned on unless for the purposes of procreation and pleasure did not come into it. There was even a custom where a married woman, after having a baby, had to go to the altar rails to be “cleansed”. This was known as “churching” and I remember my own mother having to do it. All kinds of contraception were banned.

With such a taboo on sex, it was no wonder that there was a great stigma attached to a young woman becoming pregnant before marriage. She would bring shame to the family who would be the butt of rumour and innuendo. The poor girl was often taken to a convent for her confinement so that nobody would know. Out of sight, out of mind. The woman was the sinner; there was no talk of the father. People do not become pregnant on their own but we hear very little of men being castigated for being unmarried parents. Some of these were in prominent positions in society and took advantage of vulnerable young girls who somehow felt indebted to them.  In most cases it was understood that the baby would be adopted after birth and this presented a sensible solution to many who availed of it but others did not want to be parted from their babies and this is where the deceit came in.

Maybe the clergy and the powers that be thought they were doing the best for both the mother and the baby by getting good homes for the children. In the prevailing climate, people who were born outside wedlock were not treated very well. They were second class citizens who were treated appallingly by teachers and classmates alike. They were referred to as “bastards” and had a very stressful upbringing. By having them adopted, maybe those in power genuinely believed they were doing the right thing. Most of those adopted had a very happy life and speak highly of their adoptive parents and that is good but they also want to know who their natural parents were and have a right to do so. Up to now many obstacles have been placed in their paths but, with the latest revelations, it is hoped that the government will act quickly to remove these.

Thankfully there is more enlightened thinking today and there are great supports for any woman who wants to keep her baby. Families are more diverse with one parent, two women, two men and couples living together all forming different unions. There has also been great strides made in gender equality but we are not quite there yet. There are still areas, including government departments,  where women who do exactly the same work as their male counterparts are paid less and of course we don’t have any women priests. We should be ashamed at the history of our treatment of women in this country and re must insure that nothing like what went on ever happens again.