NL 2014/08

Ireland: it’s not good to be an illegitimate child

Called the ‘children of shame’, they were treated like lepers because their mothers were unmarried. Most families banished the ‘fallen girls’ to (Catholic) homes for unwed mothers and their children, both to save the family’s honour and for the otherwise expensive medical care provided by the nuns. For example, the Bon Secours sisters, who belong to a charitable order that takes care of unwed mothers, were trained as midwives and nurses. In all, there were approximately a dozen such mother-and-child homes in Ireland, one of them Protestant.

Between 1900 and 1996, some 35,000 women moved into them. They were badly mistreated, meant as a punishment for their moral failings and intended to ‘reform’ them. In return for room and board and medical care, the women had to stay at the home for one year and work for the order without pay – conditions that resembled slavery were widely known. Whoever dared to make two ‘mistakes’ and become pregnant again had to work in a ‘Magdalene laundry’, named after the Biblical ‘sinner’ Maria Magdalene. Prostitutes were also sent there and forced to work.

When a woman finally left the home, she had to leave her child behind with the nuns, never to see it again. These children were matched with married couples for adoptions or given rudimentary schooling to learn how to work and pray.

The Irish public ignored the troublesome aspects of the church-run homes for a long time, and not until the past few decades has discussion of this issue begun. One problem area involves the infant mortality rate. In a parliamentary debate, it was determined that every third illegitimate baby died during its first year – about five times the figure for babies born to married couples. This is however not peculiar to Ireland: similar statistics can be found in all countries where an illegitimate child is thought to bring shame and provide proof of the mother’s moral corruption. At the maternity home in the western Irish town of Tuam, which is receiving a great deal of media attention at present, the mortality rate was 35 per cent, while it reached even 60 per cent at some other homes. What was done with the young corpses is now the focus of an investigation – a very small number were given a proper burial.

One might wonder who was worse off, the unwed mothers or the children. At a reunion of former residents of a home in Cork, one woman said, “All these mothers had their hearts broken! Many of us, and I myself, searched all our lives for something that would make up for this loss, but it doesn’t work. When your baby’s gone, your life’s gone too.”

At school, the children who survived were mistreated, ostracised and mocked – by the nuns and, following their example, fellow students: they were considered fair game. The lucky ones were adopted and treated well. If questions were ever asked, neither the woman nor the child were given relevant information.


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