February 11, 2005

Not an acceptable target

One in Four

Writes Mary Raftery in The Irish Times

There was a time in this country, not so long ago, when a particularly nasty view informed public policy. This was that children born outside marriage were in some way genetically defective.

The structures established to deal with these children and their mothers, funded by the State, were premised on the concept that children who were "illegitimate"(in the language of the day) needed to be treated in a particular way to combat the likelihood that they would inherit their mothers' "immoral" genetic make-up.

In the context of the attack by Kevin Myers in this newspaper on the children of lone parents as "bastards", and on their parents as "mothers of bastards" and "fathers of bastards", it is worth examining what the consequences of this kind of view meant to tens of thousands of people in this country during the 20th century.

Unmarried women who became pregnant usually ended up in mother and baby homes, most run by nuns. There were two types of these homes: one for what were known as "first-time offenders", i.e. those on their first pregnancies; and others for the "recidivists", those who had given birth before. The effective criminalisation of these women by the use of this kind of language was entirely intentional, and was designed to isolate and stigmatise both them and their children. ...

This identification of a group of children as being almost part of a genetic underclass goes some way towards explaining the extraordinary levels of abuse and savagery which we now know they suffered at the hands of the religious orders who ran the industrial schools. The use of language, the naming of these children as "bastards" and "illegitimate", played a crucial role in separating them from the rest of society, in defining them as being "other", and in exposing them to rape and battery.

Posted by kshaw at February 11, 2005 08:18 AM