Mother and baby homes: not just the church was to blame
Such an inquiry was agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive in November of last year.
The Queen’s University oral history project Quote has just published testimonies from some of those who experienced life in mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries and the transcripts also include evidence from children born in the homes.
They further demonstrate that it is not just the church and state that have questions to answer and apologies to make in how they have treated children born out of wedlock and their mothers.
The uncomfortable truth is that if we want to fully understand our all-too recent past we sooner or later have to deal with the complicity of so many in Ireland’s so-called architecture of confinement – the placement of women and their unborn children in a place of shame where those deemed unworthy were locked away from the rest.
Mother and baby homes were not the preserve of the Republic of Ireland, they existed in the north as well and the Catholic church was not the only religion running them.
Records are inadequate so we cannot say for sure how many women were committed to these places in this jurisdiction but estimates go as high as 10,500 mothers. How many children survived is even harder to say.
The chair of the interdepartmental Working Group examining the issues Judith Gillespie told MLAs in 2021: “I can tell Committee members that the overriding reason that women entered mother-and-baby homes, for example, was familial pressure. Families wanted a problem to go away, and, as a result, they sent their daughters and sisters away from home. Often, these daughters and sisters were under 18 and, in some cases, considerably under 18. Often, they were vulnerable.”
And these latest testimonies do not refer to the dim and distant past, several concern the 1980s.
One such is that of a woman known as NO who was 16 when she became pregnant. She was a Catholic, her boyfriend was Protestant and her mother did not approve of him.
She added: “I remember being at school – I was still at school – and I didn’t tell anyone, only my sister. I was telling her one day, I was like a real good … and we were sitting outside and my mummy was in the back of the field emptying ashes, and she came up and she started to kick me round the place. And it wasn’t long after that the she sent me away.”
She added: “whenever she found out I was pregnant, she rang the priest and the social worker and the doctor – and they all came out to the house. They were, like, discussing my whole life in the kitchen, and I was closed in the living room. And the next thing I knew, I was going away with this woman that I didn’t know.”
She said she remembers crying to her and saying: “Please let me stay at home for my birthday. And I says: “I just want to stay at home” and I remember crying and crying and crying. But mummy wouldn’t listen to me at all, like, do you know?
“She used to say to me I brought shame on the family and everything. And I suppose I grew up a lot of my life thinking she hated me, too.” She said she had felt that sense of shame ever since.
She was taken to a Good Shepherd mother and baby home. “I just remember being left there and absolutely hating it, you know, closed in a wee small room on your own. Never had any clothes of my own. I wore someone else’s clothes all the time. If you were six months pregnant, and then you got eight months pregnant – you wore someone else’s.”
She said her mother did not visit her when she was confined in the convent.
“And I had, like, an older sister that would have came down on the bus from the home to see me, and that was the only time you ever got out. It was like bars on the door. And you were really locked up all day.
“They gave you these wee flat shoes and horrible dresses. Big, white dresses. And my sister that did never come down, came down one day, and the nuns – they’d have to ring the bell outside and the nun would answer the door – and my sister looked at me and she says: “I couldn’t walk up the street with you, love, looking like that”. So then the nun would just close the door each time – “You’re not having your visit today”. And I would just go back into the room.
I don’t think I would ever forget that part of my life, ever because it has haunted me all my life, and sometimes I find it just hard to even talk because I kind of re-live it all. But I know it has left, like, mental scars in me that’ll never, ever go away. Indeed they’ll not.”
NO said she was made to clean the stairs to induce her labour at eight months pregnant.
She was not taken to the doctors during that period and when she believed she was going into labour she had an especially distressing experience when she told one of the sisters.
“I went into the room and rapped the door she was shouting out through the door at me: “Who is it? Who is it?”
“And when I went into her. She said: “Why are you up? Why are you out of bed?” And “Why are you not in your room?” And I remember saying to her that I thought I was going to have the baby. She brought me into another room – I think it was another room, as far as I remember – and told me to take off my clothes, and she gave me an internal.
“And then she says: “You’re a very, very stupid girl” and “Go away back to your room”. And I remember leaving her office and crying, literally, the whole way back to my room and just lying there crying.
NO gave birth in hospital where she stayed for around a fortnight before discharge.
She said: “I remember my mum coming down with this social worker. And me crying and asking her to hold the baby, and she didn’t want to. She didn’t even want to look at him. But eventually she did hold him. But just, like, for a second.
“The day that I came out of the hospital, the social worker, and my mother, came to the hospital and I actually was really happy thinking I was coming home with them.”
They called in at the convent.
“And I had photographs taken of the other people that was in there, holding the child. And then I remember the social worker and my mother saying that I was wanted in the office, by the nun. And when I went down to the office and I came back – they were gone. And the baby was gone, from the home. And I was just left there.”
She was distraught. “I had this baby. I believe it was the only thing in my life that I’d ever loved – well, after my father and brother was dead, because I didn’t have a relationship with my mother because of the pregnancy. And I just thought well, if he’s taken away there’s nobody really left to love – and that’ll love me back. And I guess I’ve just grew up all my life feeling really unwanted, and all of … You know, I look back at my life now – because there was so many times I would’ve drank and wanted to end my life. Hated it when the child’s birthday would come and I couldn’t see them.
“And I think, you know, people, people have talked to me in their life, you know, would have said: “Oh, I understand how you feel”.
“I don’t understand something that I haven’t experienced. So I know that other people don’t. They can have empathy with you, whatever, but they don’t really understand the pain of it all.
“I just, I dunno, live in hope every day that one day I would meet him. And I have to understand that he’s not that wee baby that I was holding, that he’s a big man now.”
NO’s is just one of the testimonies in this archive. It is evidence that the prejudice and cruelty meted out to NO and others continues to have a devastating effect to this day.
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