Bethany Home latest—ten years and one Commission of Investigation report later

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2021), Letters, Volume 29

Sir,—Ten years ago History Ireland was in the unusual position of breaking a news story (my ‘Church and State bear responsibility for the Bethany Home’, HI 18.5, Sept./Oct. 2010). It revealed 219 deaths, from 1922 to 1949, of Bethany Home children. They were buried in unmarked graves in Dublin’s Mount Jerome Cemetery. Bethany Home functioned for the first 50 years of independent Ireland. Newspapers, radio and TV prominently covered the find.

What was unusual about the story was that Bethany was a Protestant mother and baby institution. Up to that point public discourse was consumed by stories of abuse and neglect in institutions run by Roman Catholic religious bodies—so much so that some commentators portrayed abuse as peculiarly Catholic. This view was enabled by the Child Abuse Commission’s 2009 ‘Ryan Report’, which contained no investigation of abuse in Protestant-ethos institutions.

There is good reason for that. As far as I could gather, no Protestant victim self-selected to speak to Ryan. I asked two such victims, one of whom was compensated for abuse in Smyly’s Home orphanages, why not. They said that the Commission was ‘a Catholic thing’ or ‘for Catholics’. In other words, the narrative of abuse in Roman Catholic institutions was all-powerful. These and other Protestant victims felt excluded and kept their heads down. The Commission did not think to look up from its Roman Catholic preoccupations.

It should be acknowledged that, over time, the larger Roman Catholic community became sufficiently amorphous to overcome and eventually defeat religious authority. The Protestant community is sufficiently compact to discourage dissent emerging into social forums. It is also historically more affluent and therefore had, relatively speaking, fewer poor young people requiring incarceration. There were some, but sufficiently few to be regulated by the Meath Schools Fund charity. A 1933 Garda circular instructed members of the force to deliver alleged Protestant miscreants to the nearest appropriate Protestant clergyman, who, if he was not already aware of it, was told of the charity’s existence. These young people are, potentially, lost to historical investigation. There is no official record of their existence. Meath School Fund records, not available for inspection, are in the Church of Ireland’s Representative Church Body Library (RCBL).

Where the two communities tended to more exactly resemble each other is in a perceived requirement for patriarchal institutional control of women who threatened the institution of marriage. Control of pregnant unmarried women crosses class boundaries, even though it is most acute lower down the socioeconomic ladder. Unmarried Protestant women giving birth to ‘unwanted’ children, who then required distribution, were coercively contained.

My object in researching the story of what happened in the Bethany Home, and subsequently in the West Bank orphanage, the Braemar Rescue Home for Protestant Girls, Smyly’s orphanages, the Church of Ireland Magdalen Asylum (Denny House) and the Nursery Rescue Society, was not to populate a sectarian score-sheet. It was to enable a discussion and debate on how various governments facilitated the social control of poor and marginalised populations by means of sectarian regulation. It was also to put on the record the testimony of victims of this system, in whose existence those who write academically and in the media on the subject appear otherwise uninterested. The extent of this indifference, hostility even, at times surprised me. It was more than made up for by the company of people from all parts of Ireland, both jurisdictions, who had extraordinary stories to tell.

Without the indefatigable efforts of Bethany Home survivor Derek Leinster it is possible that the story of these victims might have remained in the shadows. This formerly illiterate victim, born in 1941, self-published volumes of autobiography in 2005 and 2008. Newspapers like the Irish Times did not deem them worthy of attention. Luckily, the London Guardian did so in 2009, after which I got in touch and encouraged Derek to immediately write an opinion piece for the Irish Times. On the back of the Guardian article, Derek’s opinion piece appeared.

Following on from that was a women’s history bibliography mentioning Bethany Home Management Committee minutes. The reported custodians, the RCBL, initially disclaimed all knowledge but eventually discovered them. The minutes mentioned children who died. Where were they buried? No sign was seen after two days of scouring the nearest graveyard, Mount Jerome. A cemetery official had never heard of the Bethany Home. I wrote a letter to the official on a period in the later 1930s reporting increased mortality. He looked at the cemetery record for that period and found some Bethany Home interments. That led to examination of the Mount Jerome microfilm record in the Gilbert Library and the discovery of 219 deaths.

History Ireland published my article and an expanded version in PDF format, ‘Church & State and the Bethany Home’. It looked at the societal context in which these deaths occurred. That research and much more was given to the Mother and Baby Home Commission of Investigation in November 2015. The Commission was set up after the discovery in 2014 of 800 infant deaths in Tuam, from a local authority institution controlled by Bon Secours nuns.

Much of the research amassed by the Protestant survivors’ campaign is reproduced in the Commission’s January 2021 report. At last, there is an official narrative on what happened to Protestants within southern Ireland’s sectarian system of social control. The Commission report, despite weaknesses in representing victim experience, has called for redress.

Unfortunately, even after publication of the Commission report, a media over-emphasis on Roman Catholic activity continues.

The Irish Times, unlike in 2010, refused letters on what happened in the Bethany Home. The newspaper misconstrued President Michael D. Higgins as blaming ‘the State and the Catholic Church’. He did not. The President’s thoughtful speech encompassed the role of the State and of all churches. The President’s emphasis was, correctly, on the former. I wrote to the paper three times about the mistake and was ignored twice. The error was quietly corrected after email number three, containing the word ‘complaint’.

All that remains to be corrected is media practice, so that Protestant victims are not again required to lie down, like croppies.—Yours etc.,

Dr NIALL MEEHAN
Faculty Head, Journalism and Media
Griffith College, Dublin

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