The story of Margaret Cash and her 7 children caught the attention of the public, after photos of her children sleeping in their school uniforms on chairs at a Garda station were shared on social media.
Had Margaret Cash had her children 30 years ago there’s every chance she would have found herself incarcerated by the Church in a mother and baby home. Perhaps her children would have been taken from her.
Had she had children 50 years ago in a mother and baby home, some of them may have been sold to wealthy Americans. It is likely at least some of her children would have died from the “care” of the Nuns.
We expected so little for “unmarried mothers” as they were known then. We denied them human rights, as in the eyes of the Church they had sinned, and they deserved whatever punishment the Nuns could dream up. They deserved it.
But the Ireland of 2018 is a different place, a progressive country; we even have an openly gay Taoiseach, the son of an immigrant to boot. We would never want a return to the mother and baby homes of the past, or the horrific way women and children were treated right?
My naïve delusions were shattered on my first night canvassing for repeal.
“Well I just don’t agree with abortions. What about all them childless couples who would only love a baby?” said one woman I encountered.
“That is a possible solution to an unwanted child,” I said. “Not an unwanted pregnancy. What do you suggest we do when someone, for whatever reason – just doesn’t want to be pregnant?”
“I don’t agree with abortion. They should be made to stay pregnant”, the lady said.
“So how do you suggest we enforce that on unwilling pregnant people?” I asked, increasingly appalled at the turn the conversation was taking.
“I suppose we could build places for them to stay.”
Like the mother and baby homes, I said in my head, as I politely got away from her as fast as I could. Her ideas were not as unusual as I expected. Many ‘No’ voters I spoke to offered versions of the mother and baby homes as an alternative to abortion.
It seems the mentality of locking ‘bold’ women up is not dead.
Even the Government is not immune, with homeless women and children currently being housed in former Magdalene Laundries, now re-branded by Fine Gael as “Homeless Hubs”. When Fine Gael started their tenure in government in 2011, there were 3,808 homeless people.
Now the figures are more than 10,000 with two thirds of all homeless people being either lone mothers or children. These figures do not count the hidden homeless who are living with friends or relatives while they look for a place to live.
Lone parents were the group in society who lost the most income since the financial crash. Their social welfare payments and other supports and entitlements have been steadily decreasing since Fine Gael took office.
The average age of a homeless child in Ireland is 7.
In 2016, 11.1% of children were living in consistent poverty, which is the equivalent of the entire population of Wicklow. The high costs of private rentals and the low amount of welfare has particularly penalised larger families who are more likely to be homeless. The average age of a homeless child in Ireland is seven.
Housing Ministers have come and gone, with only broken promises and photos of their concerned faces, sleeves rolled up & hard hats on to show for their time in office. Seven years of Ministers trying to look competent while the homeless crisis worsens and private rents skyrocket.
Last week, the story of Margaret Cash and her seven children caught the attention of the public, after photos of her children sleeping in their school uniforms on chairs at a Garda station were shared on social media.
Cue the usual outrage by right-wing commentators, both media and private. The Niall Boylan show tweeted a chart (above) that erroneously suggested that a lone mother with seven children would be in receipt of €995 a week. (The actual amount Margaret would be entitled to is €677.75 per week, or €84.71 per person).
The tweet garnered comments from people bemoaning the overly “generous” social welfare system and asking where does “individual responsibility” come into it, along with personal digs at Margaret for having the audacity to have seven children in a country that does not offer free contraception or abortions and does not provide adequate sex education.
How very dare she expect the state to support her.
These type of comments have been flooding the airwaves and social media since the story broke. On Ciara Kelly’s Newstalk show we were told that the majority of people texting in were angry – at Margaret.
Not angry at the government for systematically failing families living in poverty – angry at the victim of a deliberate policy to push lone parents into further poverty and withdraw supports for them.
Lone mothers in deprived areas are increasingly taking their own lives, and we know some of these women have chosen this as they felt so hopeless and desperate that they couldn’t provide for their children.
If Margaret had been a foster carer to seven children she would be in receipt of €352 per child per week which is €2464 (tax free) for seven kids. The government has calculated the costs of rent, food, heating, bills, clothes, schooling, travel and figured out that foster parents need €352 per week to cover all their costs.
Yet lone parents are expected to provide the same level of care for a fraction of the money. As shown above, a homeless lone parent with seven children would be in receipt of €84.71 per child from the government, a far cry from the €352 she would get if the children were not hers.
There is a stark difference in the support the government gives when it outsources caring roles and the support they will give to vulnerable families who are related by blood.
It seems sensible to imagine that less people might end up in care homes or being fostered were families of origin better supported. Lone mothers in deprived areas are increasingly taking their own lives, and we know some of these women have chosen this as they felt so hopeless and desperate that they couldn’t provide for their children.
We have failed Margaret and her children and the 7,000 others like them, just like we failed the women and children who were imprisoned in the mother and baby homes of our not-to-distant-past.
It is distressing in the extreme to think that poverty is killing women while after their death the people outsourced to look after their children will be given sufficient money and support that those mothers were denied in life.
“I feel so ashamed as a mother that I can’t do more for them”, said Margaret Cash. “I am ashamed at being homeless, but what can I do?”
A measure of a society is how it treats it’s most vulnerable. We have failed Margaret and her children and the 7,000 others like them, just like we failed the tens of thousands of women and children who were imprisoned in the Magdalene Laundries and mother and baby homes of our not-to-distant-past.
The solution to the housing crisis is simple. Build / provide more social housing and cap private rents, however the solution to the victim-blaming mentality that allowed the mother and baby homes to flourish in Ireland for centuries – now that is a tougher bias to uproot.
About the Author
Taryn de Vere is a writer, a colourful fashion activist and a mother of 5.