Surviving a mother-and-baby home

How a Dublin woman fought the pressure to sign adoption papers, and kept her child

Anne Dawson (94) and her daughter Colette , at their home in Cabra, Dublin, yesterday. Photograph: Eric Luke

Anne Dawson (94) and her daughter Colette , at their home in Cabra, Dublin, yesterday. Photograph: Eric Luke

Thu, Jun 12, 2014, 01:00

When Annie Smith was ordered out of the house by her father over 70 years ago in Dublin, she spent several nights sheltering in a watchman’s hut before taking refuge in St Patrick’s mother-and-baby home on the Navan Road.

Annie, christened Honora, was 22, had a job in the Ever Ready battery factory and was six months pregnant. Life had not been easy. Her own mother had died when she was seven, and her father, a Guinness brewery employee, had survived the first World War as a British army sergeant-major.

“She had lived with her father and siblings. He remarried when she was 12, and they were among the first group of inner-city residents who were moved out to new housing estates being developed in Cabra,”Annie’s daughter, Nuala, now living in Connemara, says. “But they spent five years in Keogh Barracks in Inchicore before that move, and my mother says it was horrendous.”

On finding herself with child, Annie told her boyfriend, who was from a middle-class Dublin family. He tried to persuade her go to to England with him.

“He called to the house,” Nuala says. “It was then that it all came out, and Annie was told to leave. Her boyfriend promised he’d send for her when he got himself organised. So after a few days on the street, sleeping in doorways and alleyways, she met this night watchman who let her warm herself by the brazier. He heard her story and took her to a priest, who brought her up to the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul on the Navan Road. She never spoke to us of any physical abuse, but she has talked about how it was very, very hard. She was scrubbing granite steps at 6am on the day she went into labour,” Nuala says.

“She was three days in labour on her own, and the nuns wouldn’t send her to hospital as they were paid for every birth on the premises,” Nuala says. The practice was to offer no pain relief as suffering was regarded as part of her punishment. “It was a breach birth, and a doctor was called eventually, when she threatened to throw herself out the window,” Nuala says. “He didn’t think the baby would survive, and said it would have to be baptised. However, the baby – my oldest sister, Colette – did live.”

Pressure was put on her to agree to an adoption almost immediately, but Annie refused.

Gastroenteritis outbreak

“My mother breastfed Colette, and she thrived,” Nuala says. “At one point there was an outbreak of gastroenteritis, and many of the babies died. My mother asked the nuns if Colette could be quarantined, but they declined, and one nun referred to her as ‘you and your dirt’ when she was pleading for help. So she approached the doctor . . . and explained that her baby was healthy,” Nuala says. “He agreed to quarantine. My mum was then asked if she would breastfeed some of the other babies, which she did.”

The pressure to sign adoption papers continued. Annie had to work harder than almost everyone else in the home, was threatened with transfer to the Magdalene laundries, but did encounter several younger nuns who showed her kindness.

“The sisters told my mother repeatedly that they had a lovely family lined up, but she begged for more time,” Nuala says. Annie found a job in the TB hospital in Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow, and struck a deal with the nuns where she would pay for Colette’s keep and visit her at weekends. “She was terrified all that time that Colette would be taken away,” Nuala says. “She can never tell this story without crying.”