Almost the first thing the Irish Republic did was attempt to turn its back on a certain kind of cosmopolitan liberal modernity. In some ways, the 1937 Constitution was a document of its decade. All over the world, in the 1930s, large numbers of people turned away from what they saw as the “decadence” and “corruption” of liberal modernity and towards a “traditionalist” ethic of family, home, blood, and soil. Mussolini’s fascists and Hitler’s National Socialists codified these ideas into dangerous political movements. But Ireland, under DeValera, expressed its own kind of resistance to the “decadent” forces of liberal modernity.
The 1937 Constitution is in many ways a wonderful document. It guarantees a popularly elected President, a bicameral legislature, equality before the law, the right to assemble and to unionize, and it contains broad free speech protections. The Constitution can only be amended by referendum, which ensures that Ireland remains democratic in a true sense – the opinion of the majority is consulted before any changes to the Constitution are made. In these and other ways, the 1937 Constitution is remarkably modern.
But there are also certain well-known problems with the 1937 Constitution. The prohibition on abortion remains highly contentious, though it seems clear that if a referendum on this question were held today, a majority of the Irish electorate would vote to leave the prohibition unchanged.
The other major problem with the 1937 Constitution is the special place that it affords the family. Article 41 of the Constitution reads, in part, as follows:
1.1°: The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.
1.2°: The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.
By enshrining the family (or, as the Constitution would have it, “the Family”) as “antecedent and superior to all positive law,” the 1937 Constitution codified a deep distrust of cosmopolitanism, alternative lifestyles, and sexual liberation – forces associated, in the 1930s and after, with the “decadent” and “corrupt” side of liberal modernity. DeValera’s Constitution created a Republic along Enlightenment lines. But mixed in with this Enlightenment vision was a deep distrust of the liberalising forces of modernity, which were seen as disruptive, dangerous, and corrosive of moral values.
The practical result of this fetishisation of the family was to create a large class of outsiders in Irish life –chief among them gay people and single mothers. The state punished this class of outsiders – which they had, of course, created – by imprisoning its members in workhouses, Magdalene laundries, orphanages, and industrial schools, most of them run by the Catholic Church – which also had a “special place” in the 1937 Constitution.
One of these was the mother and baby home run by the Bon Secours sisters in Tuam, County Galway. Today the Irish Times reports as follows:
Human remains of a significant number of babies and infants up to three years of age have been found on the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway, it has been confirmed.
This follows work by the Commission on Mother and Baby Homes which carried out planned excavations there.
Local research records 796 infants and children recorded as having died in the Tuam home run by the Bon Secours Sisters between 1925 and 1961. There is not as yet any indication of exactly how many bodies have been discovered at the site.
The Tuam babies are among the many casualties of the Irish state’s early and lasting refusal to come to proper terms with the forces of liberal modernity. This is the great and ongoing tragedy of the Irish Republic. The Easter Proclamation, read aloud by Padraig Pearse outside the GPO on the 24th of April 1916, promises that the Irish Republic will “cherish all the children of the nation equally.” We have not done this. We should be ashamed.