Both the Irish and the international media have gone into overdrive since the Irish version of an English tabloid ‘broke’ the story of the grave in Tuam attached to the former children’s home run by the Bon Secours nuns, the same order, many people in the west of Ireland will recall, that operated a highly-regarded maternity hospital in the town until the 1980s.
Since the story ‘broke’ – a term that is meant to suggest that it was previously unknown or, worse yet, covered up – there has been a distasteful spectacle of what could be described as the politics of manufactured outrage. Listening to politicians over the last two weeks trying to outdo each other in expressing their shock, horror, and outrage - “You think you’re outraged? I’m much more outraged than you are!” – has not been an edifying experience. One politician, contacted by RTE Radio One, delivered, over the increasingly exasperated efforts by the newsreader to rein in this dam burst of eloquence, what amounted to a party political broadcast.
It is important to state from the beginning, and then to emphasise again and again, that the women and children involved in this distressing episode in our history deserve nothing less than our deepest and most profound sympathies.
The children who are buried in Tuam, and their mothers, are, directly and indirectly, the victims of narrow-minded prejudice, a distorted, cruel, and rarely challenged social stigma focused on sexual behaviour and its consequences, and expedience.
The Government so far has acted with both dispatch and measure, both of which are required and needed, above all, in the present febrile atmosphere. What is not needed, now and at any time in the future, as the facts of this heartrending episode unfold, is the kind of nastiness, innuendo, emotive accusations, and tub-thumping self-righteousness which have characterised much of the public conversation so far.
What we need is a dispassionate establishment of the facts of this tragic passage in our history, and a consideration of the context – in fact, the different contexts – within which unmarried pregnant women were stigmatised and excluded by those very things, their families and their Church, that ought to have shown them love and compassion. The role of the State also needs to be carefully delineated, for if there is guilt, it must be fairly assessed, noted and acknowledged. What must certainly not be done is for politicians or special interest groups to turn this into a partisan scuffle, in which a kind of outrage ‘sweepstakes’ takes over from the careful and sensitive examination this desperately sad and genuinely tragic affair so urgently requires.