It’s pure coincidence that I was reading The Valley of the Squinting Windows (Brinsley MacNamara, 1918) the very week that the Irish Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation report has been published. The report’s revelations are shocking: 9,000 babies died in the homes from the Irish Free State’s foundation in 1922 to 1998; 56,000 mothers were incarcerated (is there any other word that can be used?) within their high walls (they always had high walls); 55,000 babies were born to the world in their unwelcoming and cruel wards.
Leaving aside the outrage of these homes’ very existence, the detailing in the report of the wicked and inhumane treatment meted out both to the infants and their young, unmarried mothers by the religious orders who ran the homes evokes nothing but rage and sorrow. The death rate among the children in these homes (circa 15%) was multiples of what it was in the outside world. The children (“bastards” in the eyes of the nuns and indeed wider Irish society) were commoditised: essentially sold to adoption agencies and rich American couples. And not even in death were the poor children (both born and unborn) treated as full human beings: in the Tuam “home” up to almost 800 children were not afforded a proper burial – no death certificate, no inquiry, no funeral service, no coffin, no grave, no headstone. They were just dumped into a cistern worthy of Franco’s Spanish Civil War execution squads. You can imagine what cruelties (major and minor) were inflicted on the mothers (“fallen women”) by the black-cloaked, black-hearted so-called religious who ran the homes.
While we might rightly apportion a large share of the blame for the near dying room regime they presided over to the nuns and the Irish state which approved, inspected and funded these institutions, these homes did not exist in a vacuum: twentieth century Irish society as a whole was complicit in their existence. A read of The Valley of the Squinting Windows brings the society of holy Ireland to life and bears witness to the extreme, fevered religiosity of the time, with its manic focus on sexual purity and the intrinsically sinful and “tragic” nature of womanhood. Taken at face value, the book shows a twentieth century Ireland which was totally under the cosh of a triumphalist, authoritarian, misogynistic, absolutist Roman Catholic Church, and general society, through its submission to this twisted institution was significantly complicit such homes’ existence, giving them carte blanche to operate in as cruel and secretive a manner as they desired and essentially pushing young transgressive women into them.
It is said that one of the most radical tenets of the Christian religion is forgiveness. There is not much in the Old Testament concerning this virtue and the caricature of the Judaism upon which Christianity was built is its eye-for-an-eye nature. While forgiveness (and love) may have been Jesus Christ’s take-home message, the version of Christianity that thrived in Ireland post-Famine and which infuses the pages of The Valley of the Squinting Windows is utterly lacking in either. Every character in the book is mean-spirited, cruel, vindictive and possesses a photographic memory for the slights committed upon them by their neighbours, as well as their neighbours’ faults, peccadillos, and past misdeeds. In the small town of Garradrimna, where the novel is set, everyone is on the lookout for everyone else’s transgressions – prying, peeping, peering, snooping. If someone publicly sins the news is greeted with glee by the gossips of the town (essentially everyone from the alcoholics who rap on the side door of a pub on a Sunday morning to the God-like in his powers parish priest) and the wrongdoings are inscribed into the town’s permanent record, maintained with a gusto by the phalanx of tattlers and curtain twitchers. And so a family’s sins follow them down through the generations, mirrored by the policies of state institutions: children from mother and baby homes could not join the police, for example.
Gossip, of the lowest, nastiest, most insidious type, is the social currency of the town. It appears as if nothing else is discussed in the town bar who was seen with whom down yonder lane “keeping company”, who was brazenly wearing “immodest” clothing at Mass, who was drinking to excess, who was getting “notions”, and which girl is at risk of “getting into trouble” or “demeaning” herself. The juiciest gossip is of a sexual nature, and it is the women concerned upon whose backs the cat-o’-nine-tails of the wagging tongues falls most heavily. Men can behave in the most dastardly ways towards women and get away with it, the exculpation being that men are men – not as wily as the Jezebels in whose hands they are putty. “Fallen” and “ruined” women are literally left holding the baby.
If we accept The Valley of the Squinting Windows to be a true depiction of life in Ireland in the early twentieth century, we can understand from the attitudes described therein both how mother and baby homes came to exist and how thousands of women were driven into them, sometimes of their own volition. Sexuality was bad and dirty. Women were weak and inclined towards sexual immorality and infidelity. Not only was a women’s predilection for sexual misdeeds a risk to herself and the reputation of her family and community, she was a creeping threat to all the men around her, including any other woman’s husband, brother and father – even the parish priest. Women had to be watched. The Valley of the Squinting Windows shows a Stasi-like state where, instead of neighbours monitoring one another’s political orthodoxy, everyone is spying on everyone else’s sexual purity, and with an exaggerated focus on young, unmarried women.
If the community suspected that a young girl was sexually wayward (even holding hands with a boy could fall under this category) there was outrage. Gossip went into overdrive. She and her family would be shunned by neighbours. The priest would denounce her from the alter. Her parents would be spoken to by the priest. Shame would fall on the family. Something would have to be done to remove the girl from the community. Her presence was an insult to all the upstanding, pious folks among whom she lived, a scarring reminder of the sin she had committed. There were a number of options for “disappearing” the girl.
A “fallen” young woman could be packed off to relatives in another part of the country. This was probably the mildest punishment. She would have her baby behind the locked doors and pulled curtains of her aunt, for example. The baby would be raised by the aunt and the girl would slave away on the farm or in some menial job in a nearby town. There were a lot of children, even in my time in the 1980s, whose “mothers” were actually their aunts, and their “sisters” their mothers.
A fallen woman could take the boat to England to make herself scarce. Even there, these poor souls often could not escape the clutches of the church and ended up giving birth in a church-run institution and having the baby essentially taken from them. So common was this category of girl in England during the middle of the twentieth century that medical and social services had an acronym for her: PFI – pregnant from Ireland.
A pregnant girl could, with the help of the local clergy, be placed in an industrial school. These were church-run prisons where “wicked” boys and girls were incarcerated and made work for their keep. They were often laundries, for example the infamous Magdalene Laundries. Many women, their spirits broken, remained in these homes until old age. Many of the girls released from these homes, having received little or no education in them were signed into indentured servitude with pious “strong farmers”. Many ended up on the streets.
And then there were the mother and baby homes. Prisons where, as punishment for the sin of extramarital sex, you were locked up until your due date, treated like dirt before, during and after the birth, made give up the baby (which were worth a lot of dollars for the Church) and released, not as a free woman, but a fallen one.
My mother has told me of a poor, large family in the Turnpike, Ennis, one of the daughters of which fell pregnant outside of marriage. This would have been the 1950s. In spite of the pressure from the Church and the opprobrium of the wider community, the family stood by the girl. She had the baby at home and they helped her raise it in the family’s tiny cabin. My mother tells of nightly visits in the run-up to the baby’s birth by one of the parish’s sternest, most sadistic, most fanatically Catholic priests, urging the family to send the girl and her baby away. The girl and her baby – the result of sexual sin – were a thorn in the side of the holy Church and the good Catholic people of Ennis. The family never relented. How brave they were! How enraged the local clergy must have been at this affront to their power.
How far we have come. Thankfully, we have prised the claws of the Catholic Church off our backs, and in doing so have allowed a kindness and understanding to flourish within us for the difficulties our fellow human beings can fall into. Sex is no longer a bad thing. Women are more and more equal and not considered the temptresses they were in the age of The Valley of the Squinting Windows. Our society is not perfect: there are still plenty of gossips, plenty of begrudgers only too delighted when their neighbours publicly fail to live up to the morals of the time, a superfluidity of high-minded judgement of others. But if we can place that Christian tenet – forgiveness – at the centre of all we do we and who we are will get to a much kinder place.