Words from Pennsylvania: Tuam Mother & Baby Home

Mam gets calls and visits all the time, from people directly affected by the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, and also by researchers in various fields  – human rights, social history, and anthropology, for example. Dr James A. Houck, whose research area is Pastoral Counseling, came to her from Neumann University in the United States.

He’s been teaching his students about what happened at Tuam, and told Mam about an essay that one of them, whose name is Emily, wrote about how the story affected her and how its legacy can be understood in terms of her own Psychology studies.

Mam deeply appreciated that a young person, as far away as Pennsylvania, was impacted with such empathy by what happened in the Mother and Baby Homes system, and asked me to post her words here (with permission).


“Tuam: Ireland’s Shame” By Emily, in Philadelphia

“My initial reaction to watching the documentary on the 800 babies uncovered from the mass grave was sadness. I was greatly disturbed watching the people gather outside the gates of the institution to hang baby’s shoes and teddy bears on them and hearing the speakers talk about how these women and children must have felt. These homes were supposed to be a safe haven for these girls but instead it made them feel as if they had done something wrong by bringing their child into this world. I have mixed feelings about what went on in these homes, most of it anger and sadness. I felt as if I could really feel the pain those women felt when I was watching the documentary and it moved me to tears. I can’t believe the public could let this go on for so long, and that these women had to suffer because they couldn’t stand up for themselves. They were put in a powerless position where they thought everything happening to them was their fault, but they shouldn’t have been ashamed. They shouldn’t have been abused. These places that were run to help the women even took away their children and mistreated them too, many to the point of death.

The children, supposed products of shame, were treated in the same manner as their mothers and that’s what I truly can’t stand. It’s almost as if the nuns who were supposed to care for them were just passing the shame on to the next generation. The operation these houses had was all about bringing the women in to have her child, sending the women off to work after, and putting the child in an orphanage. That’s sick. A lot of those children who were adopted probably didn’t even know they had a mother. It’s sad to think of the level of mental and emotional abuse that went on in these places, kept secret because of shame. It’s a complete disregard for human rights and it’s shocking that the nuns who are responsible had no morals against what they were doing.

The most emotional part of the documentary was at the end when the film was scrolling through all the recorded names, ages, and causes of death of the children who were at the homes. Reading the ages of the children being lost was heartbreaking, many of them didn’t even live a year, some not even a month, or a week. In my opinion it was not the nun’s job to decide if the lives of those children and mothers were shameful or not. And it absolutely wasn’t their right to improperly bury the children. One life should not be any less valuable than the next, and it’s unfortunate that so many children and mothers had to suffer and die for so long before someone said something.

The people of Ireland didn’t want to bring up the subject of the mistreatment and death of the children at first because they probably didn’t want to accept responsibility for their history. But the popularity of how unjust the situation is only rising, and the history that the people of Tuam were trying to forget is slowly being uncovered again. It’s understandable why they wouldn’t want to talk about what had happened, after all the shame is now for a different reason. Instead of being ashamed for having unwed women giving birth to a child, they are now ashamed for how they treated these women and their children. The history may not be what they want to hear, but it is still history none the less. I hope the recognition of these wrongs and the acknowledgement of the deaths will somehow bring peace to the town and it’s victims.

This subject is relevant to several of the psychology themes covered this semester. One of the most prominent connections deals with the subject of trauma and how people deal with traumatic events. The discovery of the mass grave in Tuam would be a very traumatic event for the modern day people living in Ireland and it would have been even more traumatic for those who were experiencing the abuse and neglect during that time.

What I’ve learned from class is that there is a theory behind trauma and it is that trauma can be relieved by the individual talking about it. Often times what happens is the abused or traumatized person or people will hold onto their feelings and emotions, which is bad for them. This repression of what happened makes the person think they are moving on by forgetting what happened, but the truth is the issue has to be addressed for the trauma to go away. The same can be sad for the victims, family members, and residents of Tuam. The people there have repressed and refused to address what had happened to those women and children all those years ago, and in doing so they have not really gotten over the events that plague their mind. Repression doesn’t work for emotional memories such as what happened in Tuam. In finding a voice about the situation, it can hopefully help ease the town’s conscious about the discovery of the children’s graves.

Another point in the story that can relate to something covered in psychology class is the the cognitive distortion of fairness. Fairness and doing what one believes is right had a lot to do with what went wrong in Tuam. There are actually several cognitive distortions that can be related and applied to the events that occurred there. The distorted thinking of “being right” is a huge factor in what happened inside the mother and baby homes. The nuns who ran the facilities were so focused thinking they were doing the best thing for the mother and her child that they went so far as to deny them the basic human rights. They couldn’t see that what they were doing was wrong, because in their mind the mother’s sin of having a child with no husband was greater than how they were treating them. They were blind to how immoral their actions were because in their mind, they weren’t doing anything wrong.

Many of the mothers of the children also probably suffered from the cognitive distortion of “emotional reasoning”. These women were shunned and abused, and the emotions they felt from being treated this way must have made them feel extremely guilty even though they truly had nothing to be guilty about. After being emotionally abused for so long, they probably began to think that the guilt and shame they felt was their own fault, which is terribly sad. The cognitive distortion “fallacy of fairness” applies greatly to what happened in Tuam as well. The nuns running these homes saw their rules and regulations as fair. They thought putting these women to work for no pay was a fair exchange for them allowing them to have their child in their home. They also thought it was fair to separate the mother and child since the child was a product of shame, and to malnourished and mistreat the child since he/she was not worthy of the same life a child with two parents had. Their warped views of what was fair treatment and what wasn’t created an ongoing chain of events that was hard for many single mothers and their children to escape at the time. The women must have felt powerless to the system at the time.

Memory and how people remember what happened the events in Tuam can also relate to Psychology class. The kinds of episodic memories being retained by these women and children would have haunted them the rest of their lives. In thinking about what happened to them day after day they would have practically permanently engraved their negative experiences into their memories. The trauma attached to those memories might be repressed, but it could easily be brought back with a trigger.

It is extremely sad what happened to so many single mothers and their children in Tuam Ireland, and what’s even more sad is that many people today are still prejudiced against single mothers and young mothers. Hopefully someday people will be able to understand and learn from the past and see that being a single mother is nothing to feel guilty about, nor should it be a sign that they or their children are any less of a person because if it.

Works Cited

Howard, M. (2014, June 19). Tuam Ireland’s Shame Documentary. Retrieved April 26, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlZAWtQ-rTs


About Adrienne

Mother, yoga teacher aspirant, digital media enthusiast, archaeologist. Embracing countryside-living again after years of city lights. Still attempting, sporadically, to blog!
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1 Response to Words from Pennsylvania: Tuam Mother & Baby Home

  1. Annette McKay says:

    This is a very well written piece Emily, my mother was one of the women who suffered and lost a child to that hell.
    The loss was compounded by the shame my mother felt, a misplaced shame which should have attached to the nuns for their evil behaviour. Yourhypothesis about the townspeople is spot on. IT makes it very hard to find out the truth and gain some justice for my mother and the other poor souls who ended up in there. A thoughtful piece. Thank you

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