Thursday, 25 November 2021
Mother and Baby Institutions: Statements
Like other colleagues I put on record my sympathy for the survivors of mother and baby homes and county home institutions. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has engaged extensively and very often on a one-to-one basis with survivors of mother and baby homes and these county home institutions. He did this, listening with empathy and compassion, to ensure he and his officials could gain greater understanding of the lived experience of former residents before designing an action plan and payments scheme that was inclusive, easy to access and could encompass as many people as possible.
It was also clear that, universally, survivors and former residents wanted access to information about their origins, the mother who gave birth to them and their background. This commitment puts the issue of archives, archiving and access to archives to the fore in importance. Almost 100 years ago, in 1922, county councils assumed responsibility for the administration of aid to the poor and vulnerable in our society when they assumed responsibility of the 19th century board of guardians and poor law unions. The workhouses became county homes and county homes were used to accommodate the elderly, those with disabilities, abandoned children, mothers and babies.
Almost every county had such a home and, additionally, three counties had dedicated homes for mothers and babies in Tuam in Galway, Kilrush in Clare and Pelletstown in County Dublin. Furthermore, special homes were run independently of local authorities, generally by religious orders. These included Bessborough, Sean Ross Abbey and Castlepollard, as well as the lay-run Bethany home for the Protestant community. In virtually all cases, women were funded by the county council from which they originated. The point of difference is that local authorities were directly responsible for the welfare of the occupants of the county homes but not directly responsible for the residents of external homes.
The details of the management of these homes are kept in local authority archives. These archives comprise records of the administration of welfare for each county, for example, the admission registers of each county home, the records of the decision-making bodies, such as the board of health, minute books and county council minute books, as well as burial records. Collectively, these records contain irreplaceable information on local life in Ireland stretching back to before the Famine.
While local authority archives are critical records, they cannot provide answers to all the questions posed by the families of those in residential care. I have been told, sadly, that many records were lost or destroyed over the years and there were uneven patterns of record-keeping and sometimes none at all. Despite these drawbacks, local authorities should fulfil their statutory obligations under the Local Government Acts and make their records relating to the running of county homes and the administration of relief available to the public, subject to withholding or redacting where this is provided for in legislation. This will require local authorities to employ professional archivists. In 2021, there are only 18 professional archivists employed by 31 local authorities. Professional archivists are uniquely trained to appraise information and develop systems to make it accessible in an appropriate legal and person-centred way. Archival experience elsewhere, such as in Australia, demonstrates how a professionally managed person-centred archival approach can go some way to address many of the issues facing our citizens seeking the truth of their identity. Consideration should be given to engaging with the network of county archivists to help ensure the robustness of local access to archives of county home institutions and mother and baby homes.
Theme four of the action plan for survivors and former residents of mother and baby and county institutions focuses on archives and databases. The birth information and tracing legislation does not provide for mandatory centralisation of records. Rather, it places an onus on the holders of relevant records to safeguard and preserve them. Offaly archives is an excellent exemplar of how such critically important records can be conserved, digitised and made available in a sympathetic way. Prior to making such records centrally available, via a national memorial record centre, it is the Minister's intention that records should be accessible immediately once legislation is enacted.
I commend the work of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, on both the action plan and the payment scheme. His actions have at all times been based on compassion and empathy, and with the voices of survivors and former residence foremost in his thoughts. We cannot undo the past, but we can certainly help with the healing.