Outrage feels like the only appropriate response to The Missing Children, Tanya Stephan’s commandingly thorough chronicling of the mother-and-baby homes scandal (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 10.15pm).
Sober and unsensational, the documentary makes for upsetting viewing, and it is easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the suffering recounted. Yet it is important not to become numbed to the evil crouching at the heart of the film. If there is a message it is that we should stay angry about what was done to the mothers and children interred in these institutions around Ireland. And that we should use that anger to demand answers and action.
The catalyst of the story was, of course, the discovery by the historian Catherine Corless of a secret burial site at the Tuam mother-and-baby home, where the remains of an as-yet-undermined number of children had been dumped in what appears to have been a row of septic tanks. The callousness is beyond comprehension.
This is a stain on the Catholic Church and the Bon Secours order of nuns, which ran the home. And, yes, on Ireland, although it is crucial not to lose sight of the fact that the mothers and children were mistreated not only by “society” but also by individuals who chose cruelty rather than humanity.
The Missing Children is nearly 90 minutes long, and not one of those minutes is easy to watch. More than 9,000 babies died in mother-and-baby homes, it is revealed. “Everyone knew they existed,” says the journalist Alison O’Reilly. “No one really engaged with the people [the women and children]. They were marked for life.”
In Tuam 796 children were listed as having died, explains Corless. But was that the true number? “They had no burial records. By law you have to have a burial record. [There were] no burial records at all for these children.”
Ireland will never lack for scandals and will never, or so it seems, be free of the ghosts of its very long 20th century. So it is easy to file the mother-and-baby story away as just another in a litany of shameful episodes in our history.
What The Missing Children makes clear is that this is unfinished business. The secret burial chamber in Tuam has yet to be fully excavated, and the Bon Secours order, which today oversees a multibillion-euro empire of private hospitals, has declined to foot the entirety of the €13 million cost of doing so.
So we don’t know how many children are in the ground. Or whether the deaths were overstated so that infants could be shipped off to the United States for black-market adoptions (in return for a fat gratuity).
The testimonies of survivors of the homes are heartbreaking. “We were probably the youngest prisoners,” says PJ Haverty, whose earliest memories are of nuns screaming at him in Tuam. “We suffered as well as our mothers suffered. I used to rock myself to sleep.”
“You’d hear the roaring and shouting,” adds another survivor, Pat Duffy, who suffered permanent hearing damage as a result of beatings. “You’d be sleeping on the bed. [The nun would say,] “Look what you did: you wet the bed.”
The documentary concludes in January 2021 with the publication of the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. Yet rather than bring closure to survivors and their families, this merely deepened the hurt. Particularly troubling was Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s assertion that “society was to blame” for the abuse.
“There has been a real failure of accountability. Why has no one sued the nuns? Where were the police?” asks Dr Maeve O’Rourke, a human-rights lawyer who has advocated on the behalf of survivors.
This is the documentary’s key point. To blame everyone is to blame nobody at all – and so to exonerate the individual nuns and the priests who destroyed so many lives. It’s the quintessential Irish cover-up, in which the abused individual is told that, actually, they, as members of society, were the ones at fault all along.
“I want to know where my sister is,” says Peter Mulryan, a survivor of Tuam, as he stands over the notorious burial plot, today hemmed in by a suburban housing estate – an erasure as shocking as it is predictable. “Is she sold off? Or is she down in this septic tank somewhere?”