Bethany Home survivors: a ‘modest proposal’?

Published in Editorial, Issue 5 (September/October 2013), Volume 21

1As a bimonthly history magazine it is unusual for History Ireland to ‘break’ a story which then goes on to become national news. The exception was Niall Meehan’s ‘Platform’ piece—‘Church and state bear responsibility for the Bethany Home’—published three years ago (HI 18.5, Sept./Oct. 2010). Up to that point, particularly in the wake of the Ryan Report the previous year, the focus of attention had been on abuse—sexual, physical and psychological—in Catholic-run institutions. Bethany, which operated between 1922 and 1972, while ostensibly secular and not run directly by the Church of Ireland, was a Protestant institution run by a trust. What was revealed for the first half of its existence was an alarmingly high mortality rate amongst its inmates, owing to neglect; to add insult to injury, many of these (over 200) ended up in unmarked graves in Mount Jerome cemetery. The state—apart from expressing concerns at proselytism—turned a blind eye.
As the debate developed over the following months and years, and as previously excluded groups such as the Magdalene survivors gained admittance to long-overdue redress schemes, hopes were raised that Bethany survivors too would finally get justice. After all, this was also an institution over which the state had a duty of care and into which the courts could consign non-Catholic females for crimes ranging from petty theft to infanticide.
What, then, are we to make of Justice Minister Alan Shatter’s statement in July, refusing redress to Bethany Home survivors? He explained that some children were in the home’s care for less than two weeks. This is true; 46 children born in the home fall into this category. But they are also dead and buried, along with 173 older Bethany children, in Mount Jerome cemetery. The minister said that there was no sexual abuse in the home. It did, however, take place in some private homes and institutions to which children were subsequently sent, as several survivors can attest. Alan Shatter also stated that the reason Bethany was denied redress was because it was a ‘mother and baby’ home. That is a misnomer, as Bethany was an abandoned babies’ home, described as a ‘children’s home’ in a 1938 inspection report. Just like the Magdalenes, unwed mothers were sent there as a punishment to hide, give birth and leave. Why is the state absolved of blame if it uses that designation? Minister Shatter did, however, offer a ‘modest’ contribution towards a Mount Jerome memorial, an unfortunate use of words reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s Modest proposal. At least Swift was being deliberately satirical.

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