IN the early 1970s, a young Irish woman arrived home to find three people dressed in black standing in the kitchen. The woman, who was living with her aunt in London at the time, had confided in her aunt that she was pregnant.
nbeknownst to her, her mother had been alerted and contacted the Catholic Crusade of Rescue who had come to take her back to Ireland.
The young woman was forced into a car against her will, flown from Heathrow to Cork, and sent to Bessborough Mother and Baby Home. She became suicidal and tried to escape, but was sent to another home in Pelletstown.
The woman’s story is part of a patchwork of anonymous tales of unimaginable cruelty which were given as evidence to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission.
While some witnesses recalled innocuous or even pleasant experiences at the infamous institutions, the recollections of barbaric misogyny, callous apathy to sexual violence and malicious treatment during childbirth makes for grim reading.
A number of women recalled how labour was used as an opportunity to punish unmarried mothers for their “sins”. A woman who was adopted from Sean Ross Abbey said her mother had been tied to a bed when she was in labour and that “a nun sat on her chest” to make her push.
A woman who was sent to Bessborough while pregnant at the age of 17 described being terrified of the midwife based at the home. “She was cutting the girls down below and would tell them this is your punishment for what you have done and you are never doing this again,” she said.
A woman who was sent to St Finbarr’s hospital from Bessborough described being “butchered” and given no pain relief.
“They just split me open to deliver the baby,” she said. In Castlepollard, a woman recalled how a doctor had “stitched me in cold blood with not even a local anaesthetic.”
Another recalled having a symphysiotomy performed on her without her knowledge.
Many women reported being forced to carry out cruel or degrading labour. A woman who was sent to Castlepollard in the early 1960s remembered being forced by nuns to unblock toilets with her bare hands. The same woman saw “about 10” dead babies being sent to be buried in shoe boxes.
A woman who was sent to Bessborough in the 1960s when she was 18 said women were made to work every day, regardless of illness. “It was just as if the nuns had no hearts at all,” she said.
“You could hear the girls crying at night. We went to bed frightened and always woke up frightened.”
Another mother sent to a home in the 1960s recalled being made to cut the grass with a pair of scissors, and going into labour while she was polishing a floor.
“Later that evening, as the pain progressed, I was locked in what I can only describe as a cell,” she said. After her baby was born, she was only allowed to see it once a day when a bell would ring and women were told to go breastfeed their children while facing the wall.
The woman’s baby was adopted at six weeks, without her consent. Another woman reported being injected with something while giving birth at Bessborough at the age of 18. She believes the injection made her baby sick. For two weeks, she begged the nurses to send him to hospital but they resisted. He died at six weeks, after being kept in a “dying room”. She was not allowed to attend the burial, despite being 100 feet away from it inside the home.
Women often had their own clothes taken away and were given uniforms. A number of witnesses recalled always being hungry, or having to ration food. They were often given fake names, and some reported a policy of silence in some homes. Letters in and out of the institutions were often read and censured. A woman at Sean Ross had written to her aunt complaining about the food. A nun read out the letter in the dining room, and made the woman eat it.
The same woman also recalled being asked to count money that the sisters were keeping in biscuit tins. “All notes. Money I had never seen before which looked like dollars,” the woman said.
Some women were pressured to have their children adopted, some signed forms without understanding what it meant while others never even considered that they would be allowed to keep their children.
“I thought I committed a terrible sin and I had to be punished for it and the punishment was adoption,” a mother who was sent to Pelletstown in the late 1960s said.
A number of nuns who worked at the institutions gave evidence of the societal pressure women were under to keep their pregnancies secret. Sister Mary McManus, who worked in Bessborough from 1948-69 and 1970-1998, remembered seeing a girl arrive covered in grass, holding a baby she had given birth to in a field. Sr McManus recalled another woman who arrived at 1pm in labour, asking if she could be home by 6pm. Her mother thought she was out getting groceries, which the woman asked the nuns to buy for her. She gave birth and returned home, and her mother never found out.
A social worker who spent three months at Bessborough in 1984 recalled an underage girl with intellectual disabilities who was “dumped” there by her family after becoming pregnant as a result of incest.
A number of nuns claimed that women were always free to leave, but this was sometimes in conflict with evidence from women who had been in the homes. One reported that girls tried to run away from Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, but were brought back by gardaí. The same was reported in Bessborough, where a woman also reported seeing another mother fall to her death while trying to escape from a window.
Evidence from a number of homes suggested there was a class divide, where middle class women whose families paid for their stay were treated better and with more kindness.
There seemed to be little to no attention paid to clear instances of sexual violence. A woman recalled how she had become pregnant at the end of the 1960s as a result of rape, when she was 20 years old. When the woman tried to tell her attacker’s parish priest about what happened, “the priest sexually assaulted her in his car”. Her own priest then sent her to Castlepollard.
Another woman who was sent to Dunboyne after becoming pregnant at the age of 15 had complained that the father of her child, who was considerably older than she, was not prosecuted. Despite the fact there were a number of underage girls in Dunboyne, The Good Shepherd Sisters, who ran the homes, never made any reports to the gardaí.
One woman who was raised in a Catholic home in Liverpool described how she became pregnant at the age of 13, after being sexually abused since the age of 11. She was sent to Bessborough after being told she was going on “holiday”.
After she gave birth, her baby was taken away from her immediately. She was told that it had died, but now doubts if that was true.
Testimony from those adopted from the institutions was equally harrowing. Many suspected being involved in vaccine trials. One man, who was adopted from Tuam, said he had been born twice: once in a prison, once in a home with love and care. He lived there for most of the 1950s, until he was six-and-a-half.
For five years, his mother, who was working nearby, had knocked on the door of the home every day hoping to see him. She had desperately wanted to keep him, but was told she wasn’t capable.
“I was born in a jail and I spent six-and-a-half years in a jail. I got no love, no care, no education, no nothing. Then my mother spending five-and-a-half years walking up and down, making a fool out of her,” he said.
Source: Irish News