'I am one of the fortunate few – I never felt judged or shamed'

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I read with personal interest the Sunday Independent’s coverage last week about the report into the mother and baby homes scandal. The power that the Catholic Church wielded and exploited for decades in Ireland should never be forgotten, but, as with all things, there are two sides to this story.

y maternal grandmother, my mother and myself were affected by the Catholic ethos of hiding us “fallen women” lest we infect others, much like Covid does now.

My grandmother was sent to Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary in early 1940. She was 18, pregnant and unmarried. We did not know anything about this until a chance remark by one of her sisters about 14 years ago when dementia had already stolen her away from us. She gave birth to a son in July and he was dead and buried in their grounds, unmarked like all the other poor souls, by November. He was just four months old.

His death certificate, which I obtained a few years ago, gives his cause of death as influenza. We have no way of knowing what happened to her while she was there, or how long it was before she was allowed to leave, or indeed what really happened to her son. We are just left to our own imaginings.

She went on to have a large family and one of her sons created a beautiful memorial for the little boy who had been forgotten for so long. It was placed by my mother and one of her sisters in the eerily quiet little garden at Sean Ross Abbey 78 years after his death. It is incredibly sad that we do not have a grave for him. It’s the very least that he and all the others deserve.

Fast-forward 26 years and my mother found herself pregnant and unmarried at 18, too. Her employers found her a job and somewhere to stay in England so she could have her baby in secrecy. Her intention was to give me up for adoption. She made the lonely trip over and was, as she said herself, “as green as the grass”.

She did not know what to expect from childbirth and it was a terrifying, humiliating, and traumatic experience for her.

She was left for hours on her own in terrible pain with one young male doctor remarking: “Be quiet. This is what you get when you play with fire.”

She could not give me up for adoption. Instead, with incredible bravery, she brought me back to Ireland.

I was a big surprise to my grandparents. She had to “walk the roads” with me on a Sunday while a neighbour visited lest he be offended by my presence and my mother’s unmarried status. In the end, she had no choice but to marry my father. It was not the happiest union but I am eternally grateful that she chose to keep me.

Fast-forward 18 years (yes, there is a definite pattern here: it seems the women in our family never learn), and I, too, was pregnant and unmarried. The choice was limited and stark: get married or go to a mother and baby home, with adoption being the final solution.

The father was much older than me and having just turned 18 I did not want to get married. With the help of my mother, and the lovely Mena Robinson in Cura, we came up with a series of elaborate stories to ensure a smooth and unencumbered path to Dunboyne rather than where everyone thought I was going to: London.

An aunt who lived over there (and who had also trodden this lonely path) agreed to send my letters home with an English stamp on them to give credence to the story of my new life across the water.

After weeks of waiting and living the lie in fear that my father or my baby’s father would notice my expanding waistline, it was time to go. My mother and I drove a very circuitous route in case any relatives decided to come and see me off on the ‘Slattery’s coach’.

I arrived in the Good Shepherd convent in Dunboyne. I was, to put it mildly, terrified. It took a while to acclimatise to my new life and surroundings, but the wonderful nuns made the transition easy. Yes, the nuns were wonderful.

I particularly remember Sr Cait and Sr Ann. They were kind, gentle, fair, helpful, and thoughtful. All the girls I made friends with felt the same as me, safe and cared for. I never once felt judged or shamed; they were entirely altruistic.

Sr Ann even let me loose on her hair to practice my fledgling aspirations to be the next Vidal Sassoon. I cut it very badly, as my training had not gone beyond how to wash hair without drowning the customer, but it did not put her off asking me for another little trim. They made Christmas as special as they could for us with a big decorated tree and little gifts for everyone.

I remember walks into the village to buy ice-creams and wool (knitting was all the rage). I remember the awful chicory coffee and the mutton on a Sunday.

I remember the television room with the constant hum of clacking knitting needles and the chatter of us girls as we moaned about stretch marks and heartburn.

I remember the big bright room out the back where we sat and mulled over baby names (Nikita was a front runner after the Elton John hit song that year) as we helped to make cards for charity and the smoking room for the girls who needed a fag.

I remember the minibus journeys, full of chitter-chatter into Holles Street for check-ups and the sense of pride I felt when it was my turn to be ‘bainisteoir’ for the week.

My fear of having a traumatic birth similar to my mother’s was thankfully unfounded.

After just four hours in labour, I gave birth to a beautiful little girl with a mass of dark hair. I called her Rachel. My heart ached leaving her behind four days later. My social worker came and took her to St Patrick’s in the city.

I returned to Dunboyne with a blanket she had been wrapped in and the noise of her crying in my head. Again, the nuns were very kind and empathetic, but I was mindful of not upsetting the girls who had yet to give birth.

It was extremely difficult being back and I could not wait to get on the ferry. It was with much relief that a final medical check-up gave me the all-clear to travel.

In London, and with the Irish Sea between me and home, I convinced myself I could keep my daughter. I endlessly browsed department stores for all the things we would need to buy for our home. I researched the most affordable places to rent and let my imagination run wild over the possibilities that such a big city with so many amenities could offer.

However, the village where my parents lived, with its fair share of gossipers and begrudgers, brought a reality check like no other. I would have to tell my father, who was the type of person who worried what people were saying about him.

I also knew my daughter’s father would not take kindly to my duplicity and being forced into parenthood and I had always been afraid of his mother.

I could not envisage my daughter being a part of that family, or myself married into it.

All I saw was a life of unhappiness and misery for us. So, I made the decision to let her go and chose her new family. I opted for the one who had a ready-made older sibling who was also adopted, plus a whole raft or aunts, uncles, and cousins. I was certain I was doing the right thing for her.

I feel such sadness for all the women and children who did not have my experience.

Naturally, I have been drawn to stories, newspaper articles, films and books about these homes and adoption.

I believe much has changed for the better since I was in Dunboyne but for many survivors perhaps they do not feel as I do.

I got to meet my daughter again, which is something not all the women and children affected have been able to do. She, like me, filled out the form that the government sent to every household in Ireland after the National Adoption Contact Preference Register was set up.

We both gave full permission for our contact details to be shared through every available platform.

This brought me such joy and a chance to explain to her why I let her go. After all, she was not taken from me against my will. I was not judged harshly and unfairly, locked up and beaten, forced into labour, or kept prisoner.

I weirdly felt that my positive experience with the nuns was somehow detrimental.

Thankfully, my fears were allayed. We just talked for hours and marvelled at all our similarities.

We are still in touch and I regularly get pictures of her beautiful children. I recognise that I am one of the fortunate few.

Source: Irish News