"on Admission Her Clothes Were Removed, Her Hair Was Cut. She Was Told: "You're Here for Your Sins""
January 12, 2021
THE ABOVE ARE just three of the hundreds of accounts from survivors in the long-awaited final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation.
The key recommendations from today’s report include a State apology, redress and that access to their birth information should be given to survivors of mother and baby homes.
The commission discovered that about 9,000 children died in the 18 homes under investigation: slightly over one in every seven children who were in the institutions.
|Flowers and tributes at the site of the former Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam, Galway.|
Almost 180 pages towards the end of the mammoth 2,800 page report contain the direct testimony of the witnesses themselves who were sent to live in these homes.
The frequently harrowing testimony stretches across seven decades and covers how the women were admitted to a home, the conditions in the homes, the experience of giving birth, growing up in the homes, having children put up for adoption, and the experiences of trying to trace family members in the years that followed.
Here’s what the survivors had to say about their experiences.
Circumstances of pregnancy and admission
The witness testimony is broken down into a number of segments. The first is the circumstances of their pregnancy and admission to a mother and baby home.
Here is some testimony included from the 1950s:
“Three generations, three single mothers – it was in the mid-1950s that a witness, born in a mother and baby home, was later told by her mother that she had become pregnant having been raped by a priest. She said to the Committee that her own mother, the witness’s grandmother, had also been born to an ‘unmarried mother’.
“When she was just 15 years old, this next witness told the Committee, she was returning home from a funfair when ‘a boy of 17 or 18 years old grabbed me and had sex with me’. She said she had thought this was like ‘kiss and chase’ and didn’t question it at the time as ‘that happened regularly to lots of other girls’.
“In school, however, the nun ‘noticed’ her, called her mother in and she was taken to see a doctor, having ‘no idea’ for what reason – and not being privy to the conversation, didn’t realise that the doctor’s verdict was that she was seven months’ pregnant. When this was repeated to her, the witness told the Committee she didn’t understand what that meant – and when it was explained, she could not figure out how it had happened.
But soon, the parish priest was called to the house and after his visit, the witness was ‘bundled’ into the van of a local man who drove her, with her father, straight to the mother and baby home. (She had an aunt who was a nun and now believes that this nun had been involved in the arrangements.) All she knew, she said to the Committee, was that she had been ‘plucked’ out of her family and had never returned. ‘Whenever I would come back to Ireland from the UK, I wasn’t allowed to return home. I couldn’t be seen’.
Further account from the 1960s:
“She told the Committee that she did suspect at the time that ‘what I was doing with my boyfriend wasn’t right’. She split up with this boyfriend and returned home but when she told her mother about her condition, ‘my bag was packed and I was run out of the house’. She went back to the UK but a priest ‘became involved’ and the witness was returned to Ireland. A nun collected her at a railway station to escort her to a mother and baby home, where, she said, on admission her clothes were removed, her hair was cut, and she was told: ‘You’re here for your sins’.
“A witness who went into a Home in 1964 at the age of 23, told the Committee that she had been abused by her father for many years after her mother had died. She then met a boy, and thought if she could have a baby with someone, she ‘would have her own life’.
“However, when her father discovered she was pregnant, he gave her ‘the hiding of her life’, wrapped cardboard around her stomach and forbade her to be ‘seen outside’. A local priest made arrangements with this father for his daughter to go into the mother and baby home.
“When another witness, 19 years old, became pregnant within a relationship, she told her mother and stepfather – the latter having an ‘important’ job. His reaction was that she ‘needed to get rid of the baby as it might ruin his career’. The reaction of the boyfriend, father of the baby, was one of distress – not for his girlfriend but for his own mother as she was a widow and this ‘would break her heart’.
“When the witness gave birth to her son, he was taken for adoption and her mother collected her from the mother and baby home, took her to the airport to go to an aunt and uncle in the UK, and warned her, ‘not to come back’.
“Then there was a witness who, at the age of 16, had been in a relationship with the birth father for a year discovered that she was pregnant only when she was seven months into it. She told her boyfriend, who told his mother, who was friendly with the local priest.
Both sets of parents, with the witness, went together to meet the priest in his house. She told the Committee that he examined her internally, taking 45 minutes about it, saying that he ‘needed to establish whether (she) had been sexually active for a while’ – because if she had, he said, she ‘would not be accepted into a mother and baby home’.
According to this witness, her mother called her ‘a prostitute and a whore’. Three of her uncles were priests and her parents were worried about how her pregnancy would affect them. Both sets of parents were also very concerned, she said, about how ‘an unmarried pregnancy’ would affect the careers of the witness’s brothers: ‘Everyone was being thought of but me’.
Here are some more accounts from the 1970s:
“‘Nobody will want you now!’ Said by the mother of a witness, 14 years old when her sister ‘informed’ on her, having noticed she was pregnant. The witness was then kept out of sight upstairs.
“A 28-year old woman, separated from her husband and living with her four-year-old child in her parents’ home, dated a man for one night and became pregnant. Her parents were ‘very ashamed’ when they found out – and called a priest. The priest, she told the Committee, ‘then forced her to swear an affidavit’ that the child was not her husband’s.
“She was kept at home, hidden away and forbidden to speak, even to her child; she was not allowed to reply if the child spoke to her. Concerned about their reputation for respectability, her parents were afraid that neighbours might hear her voice and she was kept in hiding until she was eight months’ pregnant, then transferred to a home.
Real terror was felt by young women when they discovered they were pregnant ‘out of wedlock’. For instance this 17-year-old who had ‘no knowledge of sex,’ feared that her boyfriend ‘would lose interest in her if she didn’t give him what he wanted’, had sex with him and finding she was pregnant, told the Committee that her first thought was: ‘I’ll have to get rid of it’. To that end, in the hope that she would miscarry, she took hot baths and when that didn’t work, threw herself down the stairs of a department store, which didn’t work either. She confided in her mother, and was told she could no longer stay in the family home and she was sent to a mother and baby home.
“Brought to hospital after an accident, an 18-year old was discovered to be pregnant. She had been in a relationship with a man, who had left for work abroad. Her mother was informed of this unexpected development and contacted a priest, who from then on, visited the witness regularly in hospital, telling her she had to have the baby adopted to ‘avoid causing embarrassment’ to her family.
She told the Committee she believes it was this priest who arranged, with her mother, for her to be taken by ambulance directly from this hospital where she was being treated for her injuries, to a mother and baby home and when she arrived, she was physically examined by two members of staff ‘to check for diseases: girls like you could have anything’.
Some accounts from the 1980s:
“In 1985, a girl raised in state care, and now working as a cook in a boarding school, became pregnant after a ‘casual encounter’ with a local man two years older. When she told him, he ordered her ‘to get rid of the baby’. When she wouldn’t agree, she told the Committee, ‘he pushed me down the stairs in the hope I’d miscarry’. She didn’t. She was sacked from her job, and arrangements were made for her to go to a mother and baby home.
“In 1985, when she was 18 years old, a witness became pregnant to an ‘older guy’ in the UK who was a member of the Church of England. Although she was sent to a home (her parents driving her there) they were ‘largely supportive’. Her mother’s initial response was to ‘nearly to fall off her stool’, while her father’s was: ‘Nobody died’.
“But within half an hour of her arrival, a nun who discovered this was to be a mixed religion child, ‘was on her knees to say a decade of the Rosary’.”
Conditions in the homes
The Commission found that the conditions in these homes for those who resided in them could often be harrowing.
Here’s what they said: “Some witnesses described unkindness in mother and baby homes during all decades under review and not just in the early years.
“Some mothers reported having to do physically exhausting work up to the verge of giving birth, or very soon (as little as two or three days) immediately afterwards; one new mother gave an account of being shouted at and taunted while she was cleaning, post-birth stitches bursting, the cold stone of floor and staircase she had already cleaned now flooding with her blood.
Some referenced scrubbing as an inescapable part of their lives in the homes – saying that, while working, they were frequently and very closely supervised by a nun, some of whom would slap or punch them if they were judged not to be working hard or fast enough. Several witnesses from separate mother and baby homes told the Committee that the nun would deliberately ‘re-dirty’ the cleaned surfaces. One related how she had just finished mopping a long corridor when the nun upended her bucket of dirty water and ordered: ‘now clean it again!
“Some witnesses described that while working on their hands and knees, they were verbally abused about their status as ‘fallen women’. Witnesses reported being called ‘sinners’, ‘dirt’, ‘spawn of Satan’ or worse. They related similar, sometimes identical stories from time spent in institutions where the type of work and living conditions, although based throughout the country in widely spaced geographical locations, seemed to be the same.”
Testimony is also broken down by decade. Here’s some of what survivors had to say.
One man, who lived in a mother and baby home from the late 1940s until the age of six, said: “My memories are of my attempts to escape with my pal from the abuse we were suffering – every day we got out of the room, we climbed up, using the big iron gate, on to the big stone wall that surrounded the place, but the drop to the outside was too deep and we knew we would break our legs if we jumped down.
“We would try to get the attention of someone passing outside, but they would ignore us. The caretaker would come with a ladder to bring us down and the nun would come, grab me by my left ear and drag me inside. I was then locked into a dark room for a day, or sometimes two.
I was never sent to school. I used to wet the bed at night, and every morning, the nun would hit me before she grabbed my left ear and dragged me to the wash basins. Sometimes I would trip and fall but she would continue to drag me by the ear. Doctors told me that my ear suffered permanent damage. If I get a cold I lose my hearing in my left ear.
I still have nightmares about the place and I wonder how they could be so cruel to little children in a religious country. I sometimes wake and think I’m back there.
Here, the experience of another man is described: “There was no sense in the home, he went on, of being ‘wanted’ because ‘you were the product of an evil union and being made suffer for the sins of your parents.’ He recounted the backs of his hands being hit with sticks and that the main sustenance for children was ‘goody’, a blend of hot milk, bread and sugar, which could cause severe diarrhoea.
“He said that he was ‘always’ hungry and that he suffered very badly on ‘bath night’ (held on one night a week) because ‘they’ would lace the bathwater with Jeyes Fluid, which caused him great pain: ‘My scrotum would be burning’.”
“A witness told the Committee that when she was born [1950s], her birth mother was told by the nuns that her baby would be ‘taken’ and that she herself could ‘work off her sin for the next three years’.
“The witness learned that her mother’s response to this information was that if that happened she would ‘go to the top of the building with my child and commit suicide’, the response to this being that she was ‘badly’ beaten by one of the nuns. On hearing of this, the witness’s maternal grandmother took the two of them out of the home.
“She told the Committee that she had worked out why the subsequent relationship between herself and her mother did not work out. ‘She had walked into hell, had decided to blame me for her being there, and could not accept me’.
“Another witness [from the 1960s] recalled watching a child being beaten up: ‘The child was kicked, and she fell, and the blood was pouring out of her head; the nun was hitting her, swiping her… she was unconscious and was carried off’. The witness does not remember ever seeing that child again.
‘The deaths of babies were covered up’, said some witnesses, with mothers being told, ‘it’s taken care of’. One witness who reported this to the Confidential Committee also said: ‘Mothers were not told where the baby was, or given any records. One young girl whose baby died at two months old wanted to see where her child was buried and was told by the nuns that ‘she shouldn’t know’.
The report also includes brief snippet of quotes from survivors: ‘It was clear that we were there to suffer’. ‘My mother came in to see the baby and one of the nuns asked her: ‘Why would you want to see something like that?’ I was told by a nun: ‘God doesn’t want you… ‘You’re dirt’. ‘You could almost feel the tears in the walls’.
The report also notes positives experiences from some survivors of these homes, such as one witness describing “one kind nun” who gave her chocolate bars to give to her child. This nun also “secretly” took a photograph of the woman’s baby, which she still has to this day.
The Birth Experience
This is how the Commission summarised the experiences women had giving birth in these institutions.
“Many also said they faced into labour and giving birth without having any information at all about what faced them. Some, not expecting it, were shocked to discover what labour entailed when it arose; these girls and women, some up to late teens and even beyond into their 20s, came to a home in complete ignorance of the facts of life, even of ‘where and how the baby gets out’.
“Even of those who had known what to expect in terms of the natural process of birth, what was additionally dreadful for them, they said, was the complete absence of pain medication. This, some alleged, had been deliberate since their birth pains were represented by some nuns (and nurses) as ‘punishment’ – retribution by God for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. One interviewee, screaming for relief, said she was told to look at the crucifix on the wall. Pain relief was given in some hospitals and in a few homes.
‘I never saw a doctor’ was a constant refrain, as was another about not being given time properly to recover from the physical and emotional stress of birth, let alone a very difficult one – or the experience of having your baby ‘whipped away’ without giving you, as a new mother, a chance even to see, touch or hold him or her. Instead, very many said, they were quickly put back to work, some of it exceptionally heavy, as in scrubbing stone floors on hands and knees, or working on the land, and being verbally abused while at it.
Those whose babies had been bound for adoption right from the start told the Committee how frustrating it was to be forbidden to cuddle or even hold their new babies, even when feeding them in a nursery specifically designated for babies going to new mothers and fathers.
Here’s one first-hand account from a woman who was raped at the age of 12 by a family member and became pregnant. She was sent to a mother and baby home.
She said: “I was washing the floor. I had pains. I was told I was having a baby. My waters broke. I thought I had spilled something or I had wet myself. I was brought to a room and I was put in a bed. There was clear glass in the door, I was screaming in pain. I got out of the bed because I was in so much pain but I was told to get back into the bed. The baby was born. The nun told me to give the baby a name and I did. My baby died. I was never told what happened. I was told I was going home and that I wasn’t to talk about it anymore. My mother told me my baby was dead. I don’t know anything after that’.”
“In the 1970s, a 17-year old ‘didn’t know what to do’ when her waters broke. When she started labour, she was told by a nun: ‘This is your punishment. Remember what will happen tonight, never have another baby before marriage’. She was not given any pain relief and was told by the nurse who delivered the baby: ‘That’s the last time you’re going to see him, he’s gone now’.”
Adoption and consent
The report said that a number of people who’d worked in mother and baby homes in a professional capacity in the 1970s and 1980s spoke about the “culture of adoption” prevalent in mother and baby homes.
“They voiced the opinion that this culture was ‘systemic’ and ‘a belief system’, in that adoption was promoted as the ‘better option’ and that in any event, by having come into a mother and baby home in the first place, the expectation was thereby that women would see this ‘better option’ as the only realistic one and therefore would select it,” the report said.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the report said, deciding whether to give their child up for adoption caused them great distress and agony, with some feeling forced into giving them up.
The report said: “This next witness also told the Committee that she couldn’t read or write. She was raised in State care, was assaulted by a priest and having fallen pregnant, she went into a mother and baby home in 1956, to have her daughter. Like others in this sequence, she insisted that to her knowledge, she ‘hadn’t signed any documents’. In any event, she said, during the 12 months she had spent in the home looking after her baby, ‘there had been no talk of adoption’.
After that 12 months, she had returned to the institution in which she had been living prior to admission to the home – leaving her daughter behind to be cared for. Later, she got a job, moved into a flat and then went back to the home to collect her daughter. She was not there, and no-one would say where she had gone.
The witness then went to the adoption agency she presumed had been involved in taking her child out of the home, but it claimed to have no record of a relevant adoption. (However, when this daughter traced the witness in later life, it emerged that the witness and her adoptive family had been living relatively close to each other.) This mother went on to have another pregnancy, resulting in twins and they too, were born in a home. When she asked for them, she was told that they, like her daughter ‘were gone’. To her this phraseology meant that they had died at birth. Some years later, these twins traced the witness just as her first child had.
“One witness [in the 1960s], having resisted all pressures and brought her baby home recounted that while walking along a street with the child, both had been ordered into the car of a priest – he had drawn up alongside her, ordered her to get in, and when she did, drove straight to a home. On arrival, she and the baby were separated and the pressure immediately began for her to sign adoption papers. The witness was locked into a room and told she would stay there until she signed the adoption papers for her baby.
She told the Committee she ‘kicked and kicked’ that door and ‘wouldn’t stop kicking and yelling,’ demanding release, to see her baby, and that her father should be called. She kept it up until eventually the priest arrived back and tried again, through the locked door, to get her to sign papers, even shoving the papers under it, enticing her with a promise she could leave as soon as she signed, then changing tack and calling her a ‘selfish whip! But she continued to yell, protest and clamour for release.
Eventually her father was summoned and he took her home with her baby. A short time later, she left her child with her mother and father while she went back to work in the UK. Not long afterwards, however, she got a panicked phone call from her parents: this priest had been calling to the house, threatening guardianship proceedings against her. She came home to collect her daughter.
“This next witness [1970s] was extremely distressed during her meeting with the Confidential Committee when relating her experience of having her baby in a home in the mid-1970s at the age of 19, explaining that she had had no other option. She has had no further children because, she said, she was ‘too scared to go through again what she had gone through’ and she had a lot of regrets about the adoption.
“‘Reeling’ is how she described the feelings she had about the entire experience and especially about the way the institution in which she gave birth, dealt with the adoption. Firstly, she was told to dress the baby and did so in clothes her family had crocheted. She was then instructed to go to the bathroom and get herself dressed. When she returned, her baby was gone. She contacted the adoption agency asking if she could take her baby back, and was told it was too late.”
Exit and aftermath
A number of witnesses described negative experiences with being fostered or “boarded out” from mother and baby homes.
The report said: “A 90-year-old man came to speak to the Confidential Committee of having been in State care during much of his childhood. This witness was just a year old when sent to be ‘boarded out’ from the home, to live in the community with a woman who would, under inspection and supervision, look after him as her own and when the time came, send him to school.
“He suffered the physical assaults common to these reports, but what was most upsetting was that he was treated and ‘thought of’ as a ‘lesser human being’ by the family who ran this farm; they made their attitude to him clear by leaving him, for example, to eat his Christmas dinner alone in the kitchen, while they celebrated theirs in the dining-room of the house they ‘shared’ with him.”
Meanwhile, the report also delves into the experiences of those once they left the mother and baby home, including some who eventually managed to be reunited with their children.
That section of the report starts off with the following quotes:
‘Part of me died the day my son was taken. I became a sad, empty shell of a girl’.‘It was the end of my prison sentence when my Mum took me home’.
The report said: “Another witness had thought she would be leaving the home with her baby, but was simply told: ‘You’re leaving today’ and was immediately sent, without him, to a solicitor’s house to be a live-in housemaid. She spent five years there, receiving ‘only a few bob here and there’ to mind the children and do the housework: ‘When I left, I left in the same clothes I arrived in’.
“She was in such despair about losing her child and her own position in life, she went to the banks of a river and was contemplating throwing herself in, when a man who was fishing nearby saw what was happening and, ‘stopped me’. She ‘ended up’ marrying him, she told the Committee. They had more children, but she had never told him, or them, about her son before, sadly, her husband died.
“Her first son traced her and after their first meeting, she opened up about everything to her daughters, and all her children now enjoy a ‘great relationship and ‘it’s all a great relief’. The witness said that when she was attending her own mother’s funeral, she felt there was still a stigma: ‘The priest passed me by, refusing to shake my hand’.
“In 1990, 25 years after leaving the home, a witness told how she received an astonishing telephone call from the nuns there to come back, as there was ‘news’ for her. On getting there, she was ‘utterly shocked’. Her daughter, equally shocked, was there too. Neither had been told in advance of the other’s presence.
“‘Things initially went well despite the shock’ the witness told the Committee, but the relationship did break down and during the 15 years prior to the witness’s interview mother and daughter had not been in contact. On her part, the witness said, she ‘doesn’t feel she has the right to interfere in her daughter’s life’.
“Another mother who gave birth in the early 1970s had no option but to allow her child to be adopted. Almost immediately after leaving the home, she told the Committee, she became addicted to alcohol. She began the search for her child in the year 2000, but discovered he had taken his own life in 1994.
As for herself, having married an ‘abusive and violent’ man, she divorced him – and while she subsequently had a long-term relationship, is now single and living with ‘her dogs and cats’. She came to the Committee to tell her story, she said, because: ‘Not everything has a happy ending’.
One of the key recommendations in the report is that survivors should be given access to their birth information.
The report said that for a good proportion of people trying to trace their family, even when the search was successful, it was “too late”.
It said: “For others, a birthmother, when found, was still suffering from feelings of ‘shame and blame’ and had not revealed their secret to their husbands or natural children and were fearful of doing so. As for the birthmothers, some deeply yearned to contact their lost children but some had worked so hard to move on from what had been deep trauma, when a son or daughter came calling, they simply did not want to know.
‘I was the skeleton in the cupboard’, one witness said to the Committee who had found documents in his foster parents’ home, some of which contained his birthmother’s name, enabling him to start the search. He did make contact with some of his extended family ‘but they were not forthcoming with information’. He also discovered that his grandfather had ‘provided for him’ in his will, but he had never been told of this.
At the close of the witness accounts, the report acknowledges all of them for coming forward to tell their story.
The report said: “As seen above, some witnesses did acknowledge to the Committee that over the years, improvements had been made to the conditions pregnant women had to face in the homes but up to the latter decades of the 20th century, the lifting of cultural disdain for ‘fallen’ women and their ‘bastard’ offspring – and acceptance of them as full members of society – was slow to gain widespread currency.
“There were mothers who told the Committee that over the years they had managed to bury the experience of their younger lives by strength of will, many within the UK to which they had re-located. They reported how they had made a success of their lives, post-mother and baby home, having put their earlier experiences to one side.
For all kinds of personal and public reasons, some witnesses still felt it was necessary to tell their stories, sometimes against their own families who, petrified by shame, mortification, fear of parish scandal and neighbours’ blame, had jettisoned them at a time when help and solidarity were most needed.
“However, in all groups, the depth and honesty of what witnesses revealed to the Committee about what had happened to them having left the mother and baby homes, was startling. To tell these stories and have them noted by the Irish State, took courage, and of that there was plenty.
“The Committee is very grateful to all those who came forward to tell of their experience in the mother and baby homes. For some it was the first time they had revealed their feelings and thoughts of their time there. The Committee wishes to acknowledge how difficult that was for them.”