The scandal of the “banished babies” in Ireland

Over several decades and into the 1970’s, thousands of unmarried women were forced into mother and baby homes run by the church or the state in Ireland. 50,000 babies were taken away from their mothers. Women from 12-years old and into their forties were “paying for their sins”. For six years, a government commission has investigated the matter. A 3,000-page report came out last January. It was a secret inquiry. It concluded that there was no abuse. Individual victims are still stripped of their identities and still have no access to their birth records. They enjoy no compensation. Our partners from Asymmetrical Haircut, Janet Anderson and Stephanie van den Berg, talked to Mary Harney, a victim and now a tutor at the Human Rights Law clinic at the National University in Galway, and Maeve O’Rourke, a lecturer in Human Rights Law at Galway. “We have a mess on our hands now because nothing was based on human rights,” says Harney about the inquiry. “It’s a whitewash.” Janet concludes from this conversation that it was “a revelation” to her. It will be to anyone who listens.

Bon Secours survivors in Ireland
Three survivors from the "Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home" pose at a shrine in memory of children who died there. © Paul Faith / AFP
2 min 21Approximate reading time

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In a departure from our normal war crimes fare we are looking at advocacy for justice, truth and reparations in Ireland. For decades thousands of unmarried women were forced into mother and baby homes run by the church or the state. Thousands of babies died in the homes and those that did survive were regularly (illegally) adopted and often went to industrial or reform schools, which are also subject to a separate reports on abuses there.

For the Mother and Baby Homes a special commission was set up to look into what happened. After six years of work, it concluded that this was part of a general societal problem; Ireland was an “especially cold and harsh place for women” at the time. But the actions were “supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches”, the report concludes.

Janet and Stephanie spoke to Mary Harney who was born in a Mother and Baby Home in Bessborough in Co. Cork. She was illegally taken away from her mum, forcibly adopted and later sent to an industrial school. Mary is a recent law graduate in Galway, and she’s currently a current tutor in the Human Rights Law Clinic at the National University.

Also joining us was Maeve O’Rourke, lecturer in human rights law and director of the Human Rights Law Clinic at the National University of Ireland in Galway.

Mary and Maeve are both speaking about the final report of the Irish government’s enquiry into the Mother and Baby Homes which was released in January this year.

The report has been heavily criticised by survivors for not including human rights language and not allowing access to the materials they based their findings on.

For those who want to learn more about the advocacy work done by Maeve and the Human Right Clinic, she points to the Clann project, the Justice for Magdalenes research and the Adoption Rights Alliance.

Besides her go-to escapism books of Agatha Christie Mary also recommends the book Banished Babies: Secret History of Ireland’s Baby Export Business by Mike Milotte which centres on the trafficking of babies, but she warns it’s not light reading.

Mary Harney (left) and Maeve O' Rourke (right) invited by Asymmetrical Haircuts

Asymmetrical Haircuts podcastASYMMETRICAL HAIRCUTS

This podcast has been published as part of a partnership between and Asymmetrical Haircuts, a podcast on international justice produced from The Hague by journalists Janet Anderson and Stephanie van den Berg, who retain full control and independence over the contents of the podcast.

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