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Ireland Grapples with Abuses at Homes for Unwed Mothers

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

Here are the must-read stories about the abuse of mothers and children at state-run facilities for unwed mothers, including recently unearthed details in a new government report.

church and row of houses in Ireland

Reporting in The Washington Post by William Booth and Karla Adam describes how Irish Taoiseach Michéal Martin has issued a formal apology to the unwed mothers and babies who were housed in facilities run by the state and the Catholic Church. This apology comes after the release of a landmark 3000-page report detailing the abuses that occurred at these homes for unwed mothers who were disproportionately young and poor. The abuses described in the report include high infant mortality rates and forced adoptions that occurred without the mothers’ consent. While this report and apology represent a crucial step toward reconciliation, many warn that the Catholic Church has yet to accept full responsibility for creating a culture in which casting unwed pregnant women into these facilities was socially acceptable.

A 76 page summary of the report can be found here.


This piece in Gulf News by Mick O’Reilly goes into greater detail about the information included in the Irish government’s report. At least 9000 children died at the facilities and their bodies were disposed of in unmarked graves while mothers were put to work. The report looks into these deaths as well as vaccine trials conducted on children, illegal adoptions, and broader social attitudes. The Irish government’s inquiry was instigated by the discovery of unmarked graves and in the six years since has interviewed numerous women and children who were housed in the facilities. Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the Church’s role in the scandal in 2018, and the report examines the lies told by priests, nuns, and church officials as they operated these homes. Irish society has certainly undergone great changes in social attitudes toward numerous related social issues including unwed pregnancy, abortion, and same-sex marriage, but this report is a look into the not too distant past where unwed mothers were seen as “a stain on Ireland’s image as a devout Catholic nation.”


For NBC News, Elizabeth Chuck and Helena Skinner look at the lasting impact of Mari Steed’s experience at the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork. Steed had been an infant test subject during the home’s vaccine trials, and she was given three experimental injections without parental consent. Steed did not learn that these experiments had been conducted on her until 30 years later as she searched for her medical records in the 1990s. Since then, she has dedicated her time to raising awareness of this practice, hoping that the latest report will lead to concrete accountability--rather than just statements of regret--for those who participated in the vaccine trial. Steed describes the most lasting scars of this experiment as emotional, knowing that Irish society viewed her as a subhuman test object.


If you're interested in reading more, here are five books about Irish homes for unwed mothers:

1. June Goulding, The Light in the Window (memoir, 2005)

2. Ann O’Loughlin, The Secrets of Roscarbury Hall (novel, 2016)

3. Moira Fowley-Doyle, All The Bad Apples (YA novel, 2019)

4. Rachael English, The American Girl (novel, 2018)

5. V.S. Alexander, The Magdalen Girls (novel, 2016)


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