That’s Men: A time when hard hearts were no match for grief


‘My daughter is dead to me,” or words to that effect, have been spoken by fathers right up to the very recent past when a daughter became pregnant outside marriage.

The daughter, as often as not, was banished to a mother and baby home until her baby was old enough to be sent on to the United States, as illustrated in the current series Quirke , on RTÉ.

The fathers in these instances seem like hard-hearted men, able to shut off their love for their daughters as if flicking off a switch.

But were they really that hardhearted? I expect they were angry and appalled but not necessarily hard-hearted.

A daughter had done the unthinkable. She had put herself outside all notions of decency. If what had happened got out to the wider world, she would be “ruined” forever and her family would suffer for this and maybe the next generation. For instance, her sisters might find it hard to find someone to marry them, given the shame that had descended on the family.

Appalling attitudes
We look back on all of this and we are appalled at these attitudes, even those of us who lived through the end of that era.

So you can see, I hope, how the father – and mother too – might say, in their anger and dismay, “My daughter is dead to me” and would want the baby and all knowledge of the baby to disappear.

To them, this was the only way out of an otherwise impossible situation. Proving paternity, I should add, was almost impossible at the time.

But anger and dismay die down and what, I wonder, took their place? What came flooding in at unexpected moments?

The banishment of the daughter, I suspect, left a wound in the family and in the hearts of parents and siblings. What came flooding in was grief.

These parents were the products of a history of harshness towards girls and women who offended against the rules of a society that could be very oppressive indeed to those who broke its rules.

Not a race apart
The nuns were also the products of that society – and we should not let secular Ireland off the hook by imagining the nuns were a race apart and different from everyone else.

It remains a fact that the unmarried girls and young women they took in and whose babies they took from them had little future if it became known they had become pregnant.

That, I expect, is why they were given different names when they entered some of the mother and baby homes. It all helped to keep their shame secret so that they could eventually return to their families, if their families would take them back, with their secret forever banished behind the walls of the adoption societies.

But behind all this harshness parents’ hearts must have broken too, even as they refused to have anything to do with their own daughters, and tears must have been shed quietly in fields where nobody could see.

Tears were also shed for daughters who went off to be nuns.

Nuns rarely came out from behind the convent walls and it must have been a grievous loss to some fathers and mothers to see a beloved daughter taking that path. And because it was all a great honour, that grief was private too.

So both the frightened girl and the nun who held power over her were both missed by fathers and mothers who could never admit to their feelings of loss but did their crying out of public view.

The difference was that the frightened girl would have her baby taken and would nurse her own loss for the rest of her life.

We are familiar with the grief and tears of these girls and women. But in a rigid society those who seem to have acted harshly –fathers for instance – suffered their own grief and shed their own tears, secretly.

Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living , is published by Veritas.
His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.

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