Letters from unmarried mothers put spotlight on an attitude from dark ages

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A little over 50 years ago, the Sunday Independent’s Brenda Maguire wrote a column advocating adoption as a practical solution for unmarried mothers and their babies. The article, and the response of an articulate young single mother, illustrates the culture of a time and an issue that Ireland is still grappling with today.

Unmarried mothers give birth to babies, children whose birth is more an embarrassment than a joy,” she wrote on page 11 of the February 9, 1969 edition. “Once the baby is born and has been given up for adoption, the mother can pass into anonymity.”

In response, the paper published letters some weeks later from two unmarried mothers, one Catholic, one Protestant. The Catholic mother not only dissented from the view of Brenda Maguire, but set out the harrowing realities of life for unmarried mothers in what many of us regarded as the modern era but now seems like the dark ages.

“These letters appear to be the first occasion when the unmediated voices of single mothers are reported in an Irish national newspaper,” say the authors in chapter 12 of last week’s report.

It is astonishing to think that the Irish State was founded in 1922, but it was 1969 before unmarried mothers found a voice through the pages of the Sunday Independent for the 58,000 women and girls we now know fitted this description. That, too, says a lot about the society which rejected and banished them behind the high stone walls of religious institutions and dreary county homes.

While the ‘science graduate’ Brenda Maguire clearly advocated adoption as a solution to society’s problem with children born out of wedlock in her article, she did so with a humanity that was rare enough, while also displaying the religious prejudice of the time.

“The child born of an illegitimate pregnancy has done no wrong,” she wrote. “Yet we treat him as a second-class citizen. Why innocent babies should suffer the stigma of ‘illegitimacy’ because of the sins of their parents is a question that merits deep and serious thinking. Surely there are no ‘illegitimate’ children, only ‘illegitimate’ parents?”

She then quotes Ann, who couldn’t have children of her own and had adopted two babies. Ann told her the cruel realities of the adoption agencies towards unmarried mothers and their “nameless” children.

“The old identity [of the child] is so thoroughly wiped out that it would be impossible either for the adoptive parents to trace the child’s background or for the mother to learn who had adopted it,” she says, matter-of-factly.

Such a view seemed perfectly acceptable, even advocated in Ireland on the cusp of the 1970s. It was part of the culture of secrecy enshrined in the 1952 Adoption Act, parts of which still hold sway today.

Two replies, from “a spate of letters” provoked by the original column, were published on March 16. They came from two very different perspectives, but told some of the harsh truths of the lives of young mothers, while summing up the prevailing attitudes of the time.

“Practically every mother (married or unmarried) experiences great joy in the hours and days after the birth of her baby,” wrote ‘Catholic Unmarried Mother’.

“Society or the authorities in the institution cannot rob the unmarried mother of that short-lived but most perfect joy that binds her to the suffering of pregnancy and actual birth and to the abyss of gnawing loneliness and emptiness that will probably be her future…

“Is your idea of a tolerant society a society that forces the unmarried mother to seek ‘Rescue and Protection’ in an institution? As a social scientist are you happy with the system in institutions for unmarried mothers?”

She then reveals how unmarried mothers become “anonymous” on entering such institutions, called from their beds at 6.45am (6.30am on a Sunday and 5.45am after they have their child) to get on their knees for morning prayers. Taking breakfast in silence after mass, they were then dispatched to their “allotted work in the laundry, kitchen, nursery or convent”.

She writes that she paid £8 a week for “this treatment”.

“The only therapy the girls get is the recitation of the aspiration ‘O Mary by thy pure and immaculate conception obtain for me purity of body and sanctity of soul’ innumerable times each day. You say: ‘Once a baby is born and has been adopted the mother can pass into anonymity.’

“Adoption! Anonymity! What inexpressible and indescribable human pain you social scientists can so glibly dismiss in one sentence. Why don’t you call the institutions for unmarried mothers baby factories or baby markets?

“Most of the girls I knew in the institutions were paid for by the Adoption Board of their counties. In return, the board hope they would produce a healthy normal baby for a respectably married couple.

“Of course the social workers are content to let the mother pass into the anonymity of her appalling loneliness and pain of empty loss. They accept adoption as a solution.

“It is easier not to think of the girls as human beings. Dismiss the unmarried mothers as promiscuous, factory workers, waitresses, kitchen maids or potential whores. Too bad if they fall a second or third time.” Yet this cry from the heart went unanswered for most of the next decade.

The other letter began: “I am a Protestant with a 14-year-old child, whom I reared on my own. (I am unmarried.) I would like you to give a little publicity to the scandal that exists. After bringing the father to court and proving my case I got an affiliation (maintenance) order of 12/6 rising to not more than £1.”

Fifty-two years later, the Mother and Baby Homes report acknowledges the significance of this correspondence. When Brenda Maguire raised the issue in her column, it was not that she lacked compassion or feelings. She just believed, like most people in the Ireland of that time, in the orthodoxy of adoption as a solution to the ‘problem’ of children born out of wedlock.

Hers was a not malicious or intolerant view; it simply advocated a practical solution to a social issue that nobody at the time wanted to discuss, while at the same time trying to put a human face of discarded babies.

“We all have something to learn from these letters,” she concluded. “Because whether or not we face up to it we are all involved. Girls become unmarried mothers through weakness, some lack in their upbringing, immaturity, ignorance or sheer misfortune.

“The climate of opinion might with profit change so that unmarried mothers and their children are not asked to pay for what is only one of the many mistakes we all make.”

At the end of her first article she also posed the rhetorical question: “Don’t we all thrive on love?”

Sadly, for tens of thousands of women, that was exactly the ingredient missing from their lives before and after they had their babies.

Source: Irish News