The topic of institutionalisation and child welfare in Ireland has garnered increasing national and international public and scholarly attention over the past twenty years. This is not an Irish phenomenon. Governments internationally have utilised commissions to investigate a range of historical abuses against children and young adults, many in an institutional setting (see Age of Inquiry, http://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/research/ageofinquiry/). One of the most recent shocking historical revelations opens the paper – the discovery of the burial of 796 children in a septic tank in a mother and baby home in Tuam, Co. Galway (http://www.mbhcoi.ie/MBH.nsf/page/index-en). Following this, the historical approach – a history of the present – is explained. A number of questions about the past use of institutions in Ireland are posed to help illuminate the importance of this issue to the present day. We consider the nature of institutionalisation and the development of law and policy prior to and after the Second World War. Our questions lead us to a discussion of three themes: the role of economics; parentage and gender; and the relationship between the State and the Church. We conclude with a commentary on why such interrogation of institutional care is important in the present.