The Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has opened boxes of memories right across the country and beyond. Pandora’s boxes perhaps. 

People who carry these painful memories are everywhere among us, silently re-living the sadness of their family stories, sometimes feeling their unique and individual experience is being appropriated by a grand narrative that may have its own agenda, a narrative that blurs past with present, and makes little distinction between the many who did their best in difficult conditions with those who betrayed the trust placed in them.

From childhood I was aware of orphanages run by religious orders. Some children stayed in them until they grew up. Some were children of unmarried mothers. Some were actual orphans. Not as rare a fate for young children in those days unlike today with its extraordinary advances in medical science. Others were there because their mothers were hospitalized long term with mental illness and there was no family to take care of them.

Still others were there because of difficult home circumstances where the behaviour of one or both parents placed the children at risk.  I do not know a great deal about their individual stories but one thing stands out and that is the poverty of the times. The state did not support single mothers. Their families in many cases were not in a position to do so either. Those who were left to pick up the pieces were often poorly resourced religious congregations. It is strange that nobody is held to account for the conditions of poverty that prevailed at the time.

The failure of the state to prioritize the most vulnerable. Instead the focus is mainly on the failures of those who offered to step in as havens of last resort when their Christian charity was found wanting.

Growing up in County Cork, I was also aware of a very large institution on Cork’s Lee Road.  It was known as St Mary’s or the Mental Asylum. I have only once since seen a  building of similar proportions and that is the “Great Hall of the People” in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. That too is a grey, grim building, a dark house of secrets. So far, there is little interest in examining the treatment and mistreatment of the many who were consigned there for years, sometimes life. The lack of drugs, the non-existence of counselling services and modern therapies were the historic context. Perhaps it is significant that this was a state rather than religious-run facility?

It cannot be denied that people suffered greatly in such institutions. Their discharge was very often conditional on a family member signing them out. Sometimes this was refused. The poverty of the time meant that patients had little or no financial support from the state which made discharged patients dependent on their families.  Not all had the necessary means to do so; not all were so inclined.

Nuns, children and mothers at Sean Ross Abbey, in County Tipperary, Ireland. Date unknown

In 1998, all of this became much more real and personal for me.  I had never heard of St. Patrick’s Guild, an adoption agency in Dublin, run by the Sisters of Charity until a quest for my long lost cousin, whose mother, my aunt, had recently died, led me to them.  The nun who came to the phone to speak to me was gentle, empathetic and professional. She listened and obviously checked a file as I spoke. She told me that she believed I might be one of the lucky ones as she had contact details of the family of the couple who adopted my cousin in New York.

A day or so later she called back and told me she had made contact with the family and that they would contact my cousin whose adopted name and identity I still did not know.  She divulged as much as she could. What struck me most about this nun was her graciousness and empathy. The Irish family of my cousin’s adoptive mother had been in contact on behalf of my cousin and had made enquiries about her birth mother at her request.  The enquiries did not go beyond looking for information about her mother’s health, education and family background. She did not seek to make contact. Many years had passed since then.  All she knew was that they had an address for her and had undertaken to pass on my contact details.

This sympathetic nun, (was it Sister Francis?), shared what she could with me. She could now talk about my aunt who had also made contact with the agency, twice only over many long decades.  She spoke with feeling about my aunt’s request to know how her daughter was doing when my cousin was sixteen years old. She read the letter to me. Sadly, the terms of adoption did not allow the agency to solicit such information. Later she again made contact when my cousin reached adult years. This time her request to make contact was forwarded to her daughter but sadly she chose not to respond other than to assure her birth mother she was well and loved. 

The sad twist is that my aunt did not furnish a full address and the letter the agency sent her was returned. There was no subsequent correspondence from either side. My aunt never married, never had a family. There was nothing to fill the void but anxious thoughts.

I never knew I had a cousin growing up in America a few years older than myself until the secret slipped out in the reminiscences that often follow a death.  We were as a family stunned and shocked. My aunt instantly became another person for me.  Every interaction I ever had with her was now seen in terms of how it might have affected her, hurt her, evoked a memory.

The curious habit, that made her “the mean aunt”, of never giving her nieces and nephews a toy now made sense. Perfect sense. It was almost the first thing I thought of when I looked back. I also remembered her hesitancy when I proudly showed her my first born, her first grand nephew.  She never asked to hold him.

For my aunt, Church and State were not the moral police who came after “fallen women”. She may well have thought they could have done more to help. I doubt if she considered them of much relevance in her story.  Her fate was sealed by her family and her circumstances and theirs. Most of all by the man who would not stand by her.  Her mother, my grandmother was a widow trying to keep an average farm ticking over until deciding which of three sons would take it over. The family was already dealing with the fourth son’s poor health. He would eventually be diagnosed with a brain tumour.  My mother stepped up to the plate, offered to adopt her niece but my mother could not make that decision without her new husband’s agreement.  My father cannot be judged for declining to make a sacrifice and take on an unsought responsibility that few if anyone would entertain at that time.

So we come to the issue of stigma. Because the consequences of unwed motherhood were so dire for women at the time, the stigma was not primarily a moral one I believe.  For the unwed father, who could walk away, it was indeed seen in moral terms. For a woman it was something more.  It was perceived to make her look pathetic.  A woman who fell pregnant and failed to secure her child’s father as a husband could be seen as a pitiful figure. Her pregnancy was often judged to reflect poorly on her judgment and self-respect, showing a poor understanding of family obligation, a poor sense of self-interest.  So there was a tendency to isolate her, to keep her condition secret. The natural ties of blood to the unborn grandchild, niece or nephew were neutralised by shame. Sometimes even for the woman herself.

Not for my aunt however. Mature woman that she was, she had little choice but to follow family counsel. As in many families there is often an elder who steps in in a crisis and settles things. A patriarchal or matriarchal figure, the family’s touchstone of wisdom and usually the one with the necessary money to get things sorted. In my aunt’s case it was an uncle who was prominent in the civil and educational  life of Cork at the time and was the very able fixer of family problems. He took my aunt, accompanied by my mother, to Castlepollard Mother and Baby home. By all accounts, the nuns were not all gentle and kind. Some were stern and censorious.

Like the society from which they came. My aunt’s fight to keep her daughter was not with the nuns however.  It was with life itself, her circumstances, the inability or unwillingness of her own family to embrace its newest member.

So my aunt’s baby girl left Shannon airport with a nurse for New York when she was six months old.  I cannot imagine my aunt’s grief.  And the mismatch of the joy of the new parents in America. Later, as I would learn, my cousin was joined by a sister, another adopted baby from Ireland. I have reason to suspect this baby came from Tuam. They were raised in a loving, secure home.  The family were comfortably off but by no means wealthy.   To claim they “paid” for the babies they adopted is a gross slur. I am sure they made a much needed, welcome contribution to the home that cared for their much loved daughters for six months and two years respectively.  When the daughters came of age, they did not want to hurt their parents by seeking out their birth mothers.

However, I received a call from New York just a day after my conversation with the helpful nun in St Patrick’s Adoption Guild.  A year or so later I met my cousin in New York after the death of her adopted mother.  I and one of my sons who came with me were the first blood relatives she had ever met.  She was fascinated, a little overwhelmed. She marvelled at family likenesses as she looked at photographs. So did I. Her personal life as an adult had not been happy. She was sad in her core. I cannot account for that as things are never simple.  Her younger sister had a happy family life and lovely children. Life had made restoration to her. She told me she remembered being loved and cared for by someone in Ireland before crossing the Atlantic to join her adoptive family at the age of two. The person she affectionately remembers, whose name she called in the early weeks with her new family, was not her mother. It may have been a nun.

One person’s experience does not speak for another’s. But one person’s experience can challenge the idea that there is one overriding narrative that encompasses all individual stories. There is not.

The past will always be judged severely at the bar of history.  It is easy to see the wrongs. The conditions that shape them are often lost to view. When we view the “wrongs” of our own time, there is often the defence of extenuating circumstances, or some other special pleading. Today with our well developed social welfare net, with our affluence as a country an unplanned pregnancy is still viewed as a “crisis”. Something that threatens to disrupt life for a woman and her family, something that calls for exceptional intervention. Who will say our solutions today are more humane, more human?

Roderic O’Gorman, Minister for Children, reacting to the Commission’s report, spoke of “the misogyny” of past times, of women’s “lack of agency”. However you look at it, there is little agency for anyone in a “crisis”. Now as in former times, circumstances determine the courses open to us. Now as then, if a woman has not the support of her family and her child’s father, what real agency can she be said to have?

This article has been republished with permission from Gript.

Margaret Hickey writes on faith and social issues and has been published in The Irish Examiner, Human Life Review(US), Position Papers, The Furrow, The Iona Blog and The Irish Times.