Statement on the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes

Statement from the Executive Committee of the Women’s History Association of Ireland (WHAI) on the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes

July 14, 2021

The Women’s History Association of Ireland (WHAI) has been the representative body of those interested or working in gender and women’s history in Ireland for over thirty years. As one of our founders and the first president of the WHAI, Mary Cullen, noted: ‘gender is not the only essential analysis, it is one of the essential analyses, and if it is excluded, the picture drawn by the historian will be to a greater or lesser extent distorted’. 

Regarding the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes we were, as gender historians, concerned with many aspects of the final report. Considering Professor Mary Daly’s contribution to the Oxford University Irish History Seminar on the work of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes on 2 June, we wish to clarify our position on the absence of a defined gender history methodology in the report. We are also concerned by a process which did not engage with the research of the Clann Project, the testimonies of those survivors who spoke to the Confidential Committee, and a lack of engagement with feminist ethics of care and restorative justice. 

In the past forty years, women’s and gender history has entered the historical mainstream, altering our understanding of historical regimes of gender, and their entanglements with systems and structures of power and control.  Despite this, as one would expect on a research study on the intersections of structures of power and containment with women and children, there were no transparent methodological discussions in this report. A major problem is that the methodological framing of this report is based solely on a conservative interpretation of the already narrow confines of the Terms of Reference set by Government legislation.  

As women’s and gender historians we understand that gender analyses inform all research concerning women. Furthermore, there are robust feminist ethical approaches which would have allowed for a rigorous deconstruction of the gendered power structures which were instituted and maintained over many decades in independent Ireland. A gendered methodological approach to understanding the construction of the ‘Irish family’ and the use of respectability, shame and institutionalisation to control and contain Irish women would have informed a more nuanced analysis of Irish society from independence. 

As a past President of the WHAI, Catriona Crowe, noted in her Dublin Review response to the final report, ‘the Commission does not even hint here at an awareness of the nexus of power and ideology created in independent Ireland by the Catholic Church, with the full and enthusiastic assistance of the state. The Commission’s view seems to be that sexual morality was disseminated from the bottom up – Church and State responding to the popular will, and even softening its worst excesses. This is a vast claim, at odds with a substantial body of historiography, and yet nowhere in the report does the Commission explain how it came to this view.’ This subjective view of the structures of power in independent Ireland which informs the report, would, we suggest, have been avoided had a defined methodological approach to the research been taken, as happened in the Research Report on Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries in Northern Ireland, also published in early 2021.

Institutional and state archival sources are assumed, in the report, to be neutral, objective reliable material. For example, these sources are acknowledged as the primary sources informing the social history and the institutional sections (Chapter 8, 8.1, p. 1).   Witness testimony is presented as subjective; the reliability is frequently questioned and value laden. Here again the use of gender analysis would have helped. The pervasiveness of issues of social class and economic vulnerability are acknowledged in the social history, but the co-dependence of patriarchy and capitalism is not systemically explored. There is a distinct lack of methodological discussion of the way in which these sources are weighted and integrated throughout the report.  

There is much to value in the almost 4,000 pages of the final report. We welcome the inclusion of the One Family and Cherish archives and other sources which acknowledge the existence and impact of female headed household advocacy groups. The researchers involved have brought together materials from a multiplicity of archives, including the still-closed archives of the religious congregations who ran these institutions, and made them available to future researchers.  

The executive summary of the report, which is what most people will read, and which will inform Government policy going forward, is where the lack of a gendered and feminist methodology is most obvious. A gendered history analysis and a feminist research ethos would centre the voices of the marginalised, in this case survivors, to speak directly through the research to challenge the historic silencing of women and patriarchal structures of power.  Thus, the testimonies should have been considered as the most potentially powerful evidence. We look to the centring of survivors’ voices and the defined methodologies in projects such as the Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries in Northern Ireland, 1922-1990 project and the Tuam Oral History Project as examples of best practice.

As representatives of women’s and gender history on the island of Ireland, we would like to voice our strong concern that an inquiry which was concerned about the experiences of some of the most vulnerable in our recent past does not use gender as a category of analysis to understand the structures and systems of power through which these people were oppressed; does not use survivor-led feminist ethics of care in its research; and marginalises the voices of survivors, who should have been central to this work. Because of this flawed methodological approach and silencing of survivor testimonies, we, the Executive Committee of the WHAI, feel, as gender history scholars and professional historians, that the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes cannot be allowed to stand.

Signed – The Executive Committee of the Women’s History Association of Ireland (WHAI)