How motherhood became a crime: A planner’s view on post-Tuam reform

Dr Diarmuid Ó Gráda

My insights into the horrible experiences of women in Irish institutions began in the 1980s. At a Dublin mental hospital I was informed how the place held young women for many decades, merely because they were unmarried mothers. The doctor cited the case of one woman who had been there for 70 years. She had been committed as a pregnant teenager. More than anything else, the Tuam scandal reminds us of the extent of religious control over essential elements of our public realm. 

The perversion of gender relations actually began before childbirth, in the religious notion that human births are less than immaculate. This made them maculate, meaning stained or polluted. Women’s sexuality thus came to embody impurity. A close relative of mine recalled how the parish priest insisted, after several offspring, that she still required a post-birth church cleansing. This ritual called ‘churching’ was used to expurgate the female body. 

I came across architectural expressions of the sickness. Within Catholic institutions in Cork and Kerry I wondered at the underground passages provided for young females. These were dark tunnels with overhead cast-iron portholes letting in some light. They were built to shield females from public view as they moved between their accommodation and the chapel. The photo below shows four such portholes, parts of an underground women’s passage.  

During a planning inspection two decades ago at a convent/orphanage in Cork city I was told their subterranean passage was for unmarried mothers, many of them teenagers. That site visit also exposed other aspects of a strange caste system. Within the main building I saw two central staircases, side by side. My informant said the broad stairs of polished mahogany and brass was solely for the reverend mother and top clergy, with its narrow dun neighbour left for lesser mortals including nuns who had arrived without a dowry. Inequality in God’s eyes surely had many facets. 

Outside, a notable feature of the convent entrance was a passageway screened by a hedge. That was installed along the perimeter to conceal impure females from public view. Later on, during site inspections of religiously-run properties within the Dublin area, I noticed similar devices used to render scandalous women invisible, indoors and out. A lot of it reflected the age-old insistence on making ‘fallen’ women subterranean creatures. I recalled how my own research had revealed the Magdalen institution in Georgian Dublin forced the females to sing hymns depicting themselves as worms. 

In the search for a solution, we should begin by accepting that this torment was imposed on women by reason of a deranged religious attitude towards human sexuality. Proclamations on human behaviour were dressed up as moral guidance, making people insecure and obedient. The search for Shangri-la kept the clergy in control. In my early married years a guide to the facts of life, The Joy of Sex, was banned. It struck me that if the author had called it The Misery of Sex the church might well have promoted it! 

The Irish state acquiesced in the implementation of writs delivered by the Vatican state. A local teacher recalls how his UCD education professor (a priest), using the papal encyclical of Pius XI, railed against coeducation as the promiscuous herding together of the sexes. I myself witnessed UCD’s head librarian taking into custody a female student who had the audacity to wear trousers in college. 

Religion contradicted scientific truth long before Galileo was forced to deny that the Earth revolves around the sun. Religion forces us towards a perfection that does not exist. Its agents insist that they alone can forgive transgressions, even where those deeds are perfectly natural and rational. That is the source of the deviation. We become addicted to the search for a cure that we don’t need, driven by a guilt that we don’t deserve. 

For planners a decision must be now made about the place of this heritage in the conservation of these old buildings. I’m not advocating making scapegoats of the main culprits, like a Dachau or a Buchenwald, but at least one example should be retained with intact period details. It could serve as an interpretive centre, reminding us that women’s rights form the most important issue in today’s world. Reason must lift the burden of primitive morality that does so much damage to women.

Dr Diarmuid Ó Gráda is a planning consultant and the author of Georgian Dublin; The Forces That Shaped the City (Cork University Press, 2015)

The views expressed in this blog are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the IPI nor are they intended to reflect IPI policy.

Dr Diarmuid Ó Gráda
Planning Consultant