‘I was Anna Maria, but my adoptive mother was told to change that’

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‘You don’t want her – she’s an awful scrawny thing,” said the nun to the married woman who stopped in front of my crib.

he woman was invited to choose a baby from a large number of young children in cribs that filled a big room in Saint Patrick’s Home in Dublin in September 1963.

The woman began to cry. She felt she couldn’t make such a choice. She and her husband expected the nuns would have handed them a baby to adopt and she was overwhelmed when told she must choose a child from all the babies in front of her.

“This baby will be our baby,” she said, finally, despite the warning from the nun that I was so scrawny and, as it turned out, clinically malnourished.

There was a number on my cot and a name, Anna Maria, given to me by my birth mother. The nun told the new adoptive mother to disregard the name and give me a new one. My birth mother, Annette, was not in the room at that important moment. She was working as a cleaner somewhere in that big building.

Annette was 18 and had been put to work in St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home on the Navan Road in the city. She had to work in exchange for giving birth to me in the institution. She continued working there for six months since giving birth. She had desperately wanted to keep me but encountered too many obstacles.

The young mothers in the home always knew the sound of tyres on gravel outside the building meant visitors were coming to take away one of their babies. When one of the young mothers told Annette that I was being taken away, she became hysterical and was so upset she felt she was “going to die”. She never met my adoptive parents.

My new mother and father had brought along my new grandfather on their visit. He asked the nun what would happen to my birth mother now that I was being adopted. The nun said she must continue working in the institution “to pay her way”.

My grandfather took out £50 from his pocket, which was a huge sum of money in those days. He gave the money to the nun and told her: “You will let her go now.”

So Annette left the institution on the same day as me.

That was 58 years ago. My name is now Helen Martin and I live in Foxrock in Dublin. I am retired from my job as a sales and marketing manager. My own three children are aged in their 30s.

It has been an eventful week with the publication of the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and I welcome this opportunity to share my own story with Sunday Independent readers.

As a child, I felt like a celebrity when I told people that I was adopted. I had kind, generous and incredibly loving parents. We lived in Stillorgan in Dublin and I went to private school at Muckross Park in Donnybrook.

I never questioned my parentage and it never bothered me until I was married and was giving birth to my first child. I began to dwell on how any mother could give their child away.

At the maternity hospital in Holles Street, I had to fill in forms which asked questions about my birth mother’s medical history which I could not answer. Neither did my adoptive parents know anything about my birth mother.

After the birth of my second child, I decided I must find out about my birth mother. But I was not legally entitled to see my original birth certificate with the name of my birth mother. I had a different form of birth certificate for adopted persons which did not contain the name of a birth mother.

As an adopted person, I was banned from having an original birth cert. I learned from fellow members of a support group that it was possible to get my hands on my original birth cert by illegal means.

By clandestine methods, I discovered there was only one girl born in St Patrick’s on the day of my birth in March 1963, which led me to discover my original name. This allowed me to apply for a birth certificate in my original name.

I emerged from the office in Lombard Street in Dublin in 1994 holding my original birth cert for the first time. I remember sitting in my car and reading that my mother was Annette Newe.

Further investigation revealed the surprise that Annette was also born in St Patrick’s Home to a teenage mother in 1944. I also managed to get a marriage certificate for Annette and I felt like I was a private investigator.

I became a mother for a third time and continued my investigations. By then, St Patrick’s had been demolished. The religious order of nuns that had run the institution, the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, were based in Northbrook Road in Dublin 4.

I pretended I was a journalist who was writing an article on the religious order and I visited the nuns at Northbrook Road where I was ushered into their parlour and offered tea and scones.

But as I sat down with one of the nuns who had worked in St Patrick’s, I revealed my identity and told her I wanted any files they had on me. The nun refused and I told her I knew about the claims of ‘selling babies’ for adoption and told them I would return in two days for my file.

Two days later, I returned. No tea and scones this time. I was shown inside where I was given a file containing my records. Inside the file was a note which said, ‘Best of luck’.

I was then able to go to an address in Leixlip where Annette had lived in the past with her aunt. Her aunt was dead, but neighbours remembered her.

Annette was originally from Tipperary. Her own mother had given her away to her sister to raise in Leixlip while she moved to England where she later married and had a family.

I traced Annette’s current address in Roscommon, where she was living with her husband and three daughters. I contacted the Barnardos charity and told them I was determined to meet her. Eventually, Barnardos wrote to her and she agreed to meet me at a hotel in Athlone. I remember stopping the car on the way to get sick as I was so nervous.

Barnardos provided two counsellors for the meeting, one for me and one for Annette. When we met it was just incredible. I was the absolute spit of her. We ended up hugging and laughing and crying. We thanked the counsellors and asked them to leave and we talked and talked.

Annette said I was the result of a summertime romance with a colleague in a hotel where they worked. Their relationship ended. She had pleaded with her aunt to be allowed to bring her baby home, but she was refused. She did not want to give me up for adoption but she was made to feel she had no option.

She recalled the misery of St Patrick’s Home where she was treated like “a nobody”. She gave birth with no one to hold her hand or comfort her. She thought her body would break in half with pain during labour. A nun told her the pain was part of her penance.

When she left, she was told that I was being taken to the USA to live. She got a live-in job at the Montrose Hotel on the Stillorgan Road in Dublin, while I was taken to my new home in Stillorgan.

Over the next few years, my family would have brought me for meals at the Montrose Hotel and it was likely that Annette may have served us our meals.

A few years later, Annette moved to England where she worked in several jobs, including driving a bus in Birmingham. She eventually returned to Dublin and married a man from Roscommon. They lived in Goatstown in Dublin. We were amazed to discover we had lived less than a three-minute walk from each other for several years.

Annette and her husband later moved to Roscommon where they lived with their three daughters. But within a couple of years of me being reunited with her, Annette died suddenly at the age of 56, in 2001. She died before getting around to telling her family about me. I remember going to her funeral and commiserating with my own sisters as their mother’s friend.

I experienced some very difficult years after that and had feelings of abandonment and I sought counselling. Eight years after Annette’s death, I got a phone call from her youngest daughter, Vicki, who was then aged in her late-20s.

She told me that she and her sisters had wondered about my friendship with their mother. I looked so like Annette and they wondered if I was a cousin. I said ‘No.’

They wondered if I could be a sister of Annette’s that no-one knew about? I said ‘No.’

“Are you a relation?” she persisted. I replied: “I’m her daughter.”

As it turned out, it was the beginning of a new joyful era for me when I was welcomed warmly into Annette’s family circle. I was invited to lots of family celebrations. Our families regularly attended events together and we’ve all gone on holidays together.

The commission’s final report published last week does not give the full picture of the suffering inflicted nationwide by the system of mother and baby homes which was the responsibility of the State and church working hand in hand.

Women, and some men too, were treated appallingly by the system. There was so much hurt and pain suffered by generations in these homes. There is no eraser to take away the pain of the women and children of those institutions.

I’m glad there has been an apology, but Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s apology was too little too late. I don’t blame him personally as it was a poisoned chalice for him.

There needs to be proper documentation of actions the Government must take to help all the people who want to find the identity of their birth moms and who still cannot access the documents relating to their own births and earliest medical records.

And what about redress? To say they are going to give advanced medical cards – like, seriously? That’s like slapping a band-aid on someone who has been cut open with a knife.

Implementing real improvements to help the lives of survivors of mother and baby homes would be a fitting tribute to Annette.

As told to Alan O’Keeffe

Source: Irish News