Research Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Women’s History and the Politics of Shame...

Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Women’s History and the Politics of Shame in Ireland

By Clara Fischer

This year, women’s history month opened in Ireland with revelations of a mass-grave containing infant remains at a former institution for single mothers. Excavations by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation confirmed what local historian, Catherine Corless, had long suspected: the grounds of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home contain “significant quantities of human remains” in underground chambers. By requesting access to death certificates for children who had died at the institution once run by the Bon Secours order, Corless had already established the deaths of 796 children who did not appear to have been buried in official burial grounds. The find confirms Corless’s suspicion that these children – ranging from 35 fetal weeks to three years of age – were interred on the institution’s site. What can these most recent revelations tell us about how certain people in modern Ireland were treated and perceived? What role might emotion play in a philosophical and political analysis of same? How can contemporary responses to historical events and discourses inform present-day political projects? By drawing on Foucault’s work on power and embodied norms, and the canon of feminist theoretical work on emotion, I will try to shed light these questions below.

The Bon Secours order, which ran the Tuam Mother and Baby Home from 1925-1961, responded to the revelations by stating that it could not comment, but that it would cooperate with the investigation. The archbishop of the diocese of Tuam expressed his “shock” at the find, and noted that the archdiocese had no involvement with the running of the institution in question. The Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) described the burial site as a “chamber of horrors”, and said that he wants to be the Taoiseach to “once and for all deal with the sad legacies of the past.” Indeed, horror, shock, revulsion, grief, anger – these were common emotions expressed in the days after the revelations by members of the public, including by survivors and their relatives, who told stories of women institutionalized for being pregnant “out of wedlock” and the children who were taken away from them. The “sad legacies of the past” which grow specifically out of gendered history in a patriarchal Ireland, are, it seems, very much with us in the trauma that marks survivors’ lives, and the violence that institutionalization wrought in the rending apart of mothers, children, families.

These legacies cross not only temporal, but also geographical bounds, as children born in Mother and Baby Homes were often adopted – or possibly trafficked by religious orders (another aspect of this sorry history the investigation will hopefully shed light on) – by Catholic families in the United States. Children of women forced to give birth in Mother and Baby Homes who were not adopted, were either fostered, or were themselves institutionalized in orphanages, or industrial schools, where abuse and neglect were rampant.

If the outgrowths of women’s history, and its effects in the present, are to be fully grasped and thus redressed, it is vital to understand what has been termed Ireland’s “architecture of containment.” Following freedom from British rule in 1921, institutionalization was employed increasingly by the newly independent Irish nation-state, peaking in the 1950s. While other jurisdictions were turning away from mass-containment, the Irish state and Church orders promoted institutionalization through a vast network of Mother and Baby Homes, Magdalen Laundries, and industrial schools, among others. The religious orders mainly ran these institutions, and the State, as several inquiries have shown, provided inadequate oversight and showed little concern for those in the orders’ charge.

The unique longevity and intensity of institutionalization in Ireland has long baffled scholars and commentators. Certainly, the strong Church-State nexus in Ireland, and the (almost complete) lack of secular, progressive critique, explains why certain policies were favored over others, why certain issues were viewed as priorities for the post-colonial state, and why service provision was so tightly controlled by the religious orders. It does not explain, however, why and how Church and State exerted such control over the populace that it acquiesced to having one per cent of Irish people – mothers, wives, siblings – incarcerated, often for years, if not lifetimes. I maintain that the mechanism allowing for such seeming acquiescence was one of shame. Shame became, following Foucault’s terminology, disciplining. It was shame that created inadequate, shameful subjects, who stood in contrast to respectable, virtuous citizens in post-Independence Ireland.

As the Irish nation-state engaged in developing a new national identity post-Independence, it tried to differentiate itself from Britain, the former colonial power, by asserting its superior moral virtue. Irish women were often portrayed and lauded as being exceptionally virtuous and sexually pure, and it was this exceptionality that formed the basis of a distinct national Irish identity post-Independence. Indeed, Dr. Gilmartin, the archbishop of Tuam, in charge of that very diocese now at the heart of the Mother and Baby Homes revelations, noted in 1926 that Ireland’s future is intertwined with “the dignity and purity of the women of Ireland.” Given the strong focus on sexual purity in the context of a wider conservative backlash against women post-Independence, pregnancy “out of wedlock” became a particular preoccupation for the religious orders and the State. Assumed to be inherently shameful, it justified the hiding of women who had sinned and brought shame onto themselves in institutions – either Mother and Baby Homes, theoretically reserved for women who were pregnant for the first time, or Magdalen Laundries or County Homes (former work houses) for women who had several pregnancies. Their children were branded as “illegitimate” and similarly treated as shameful.

Shame usually involves the desire to conceal what is taken to be a shameful stain or defect in one’s self. Having established unmarried, pregnant women and their children as shameful, the Irish state and religious orders performed what I term the “gendered politics of shame”, as they concealed assumed instances of shame – shameful national subjects – in institutions. They thereby sought to maintain a national identity of superior virtue and sexual purity that ultimately resulted in the painful and traumatizing experiences people in Ireland, the United Sates, and other diaspora countries, still have to live with.

If the Taoiseach is serious about dealing with the “sad legacies of the past”, then it is essential to read institutionalization and the treatment of unmarried mothers and their children through the prism of shame. Appeals to not having any direct involvement or first-hand knowledge of what happened at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home can be undercut, I think, by questioning the underlying patriarchal ideology and discourses that constructed certain women and children as shameful. This must also, importantly, involve an assessment of whether women are still constructed in similar terms today. While strong disapproval of sex outside of marriage has certainly waned since the heyday of institutionalization in Ireland, unmarried mothers, especially those who depend on welfare payments, are today also presented as deficient and shamed in a neoliberal state that on the one hand demands, but on the other renders impossible, the self-sufficiency of single women caring for their children. Ultimately, the onus is on us to identify and interrupt such shaming, and thereby the injustices – historic or present – that are committed in its name.


Clara Fischer is Co-Director of the Dewey Studies Research Project, and UCD Women’s Studies Research Associate. She is guest editor of a special issue of Hypatia on “Gender and the Politics of Shame” (forthcoming 2018) and is currently completing a monograph on gender, shame and institutionalization in Ireland.


This series, Philosophy in the Contemporary World, is aimed at exploring the various ways philosophy can be used to discuss issues of relevance to our society. There are no methodological, topical, or doctrinal limitations to this series; philosophers of all persuasions are invited to submit posts regarding issues of concern to them.  Please contact us here if you would like to submit a post to this series.



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