We’re used to seeing the concept of honor killing used as a marker for barbarity, applied to foreign cultures as a way to indicate their inferiority. I can agree that the principle is contemptible and ought to be treated with scorn, but let’s apply it equally — and the modern West is just as guilty. We’ve all heard about the discovery that 800 children and babies at a Catholic home for ‘fallen’ women in Ireland were discovered to have been discarded in a septic tank, after dying of neglect and abuse. Stephanie Lord calls this atrocity what it is: these were state-sanctioned honor killings.
The women themselves served a dual purpose in the Laundries. They were a warning to others what happened when you violated the rule of the Church, and they were financial assets engaged in hard labour on behalf of the Church. They were not waged workers; they did not receive payment. They could not leave of their own free will, and their families, for the most part, did not come for them; the shame on the family would be too great. Ireland had a structure it used to imprison women for being sexual beings, for being rape victims, for not being the pure idolised incubator for patriarchy, for not having enough feminine integrity, or for being simply too pretty for the local priest’s liking. Ireland has a long tradition of pathologising difference.
People did know what went on in those institutions. Their threat loomed large over the women of Ireland for decades. On rare occasions when people attempted to speak out, they were silenced, because the restoration of honour requires the complicity of the community. Fear of what other people will think of the family is embedded in Irish culture.
The concept of honour means different things in different cultures but a common thread is that it can be broken but restored through punishing those who break it. We are familiar with the hegemonic concepts of “honour killing” and “honour crimes” as a named form of violence against women in cultures other than ours. The papers tell us it is not something that people do in the West. Honour killings, and honour crimes are perpetually drawn along racialised lines and Irish and UK media happily present them within the context of a myth of moral superiority.
So 800 children died needlessly and were treated with that ‘pro-life’ attitude the Catholic church shamelessly propagates, all to the end of making sure women were kept in line. And even the lucky children who survived that orphanage were looked down upon by Catholic society.
The entire purpose of this disgraceful institution was to dehumanize women who didn’t obey the Church.
What most never realised was that the nuns tendered for the business of running these homes and received very generous government funding, equivalent to the average industrial wage, for each mother and child in their so-called care. In addition, they profited handsomely from the forced adoptions they transacted, which saw 97% of all non-marital children taken for adoption in 1967.
With that knowledge it is unconscionable that the youngest babies, who should at least have been breast-fed by their mothers, could have died of malnutrition as is revealed on some of the death certificates meticulously uncovered by local Galway historian Catherine Corless in relation to the Tuam grave pit.
A potential explanation can be found in the account given by the late June Goulding in her book The Light in the Window, on the Bessborough mother-and-baby home in Cork, where she worked as a midwife from 1951-52.
She recounted being shocked on discovering the nun in charge of the new mothers insisted on an ad hoc system of wet-nursing where children, rather than being fed by their own mothers, who may have been working elsewhere in the home, were instead assigned to a random lactating mother to be fed. June Goulding, a young midwife, found this practice repellent and quickly grasped that it was part of the dehumanising regime designed to break down the women so they were incapable of questioning the nuns’ supreme authority.