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.”

The Newtownmountkennedy hospital hosted tea parties and it was while serving drinks Annie met army officer Joseph Colbert Dawson. She was to meet him again when he tapped her on the shoulder outside the Metropole. At that stage, she had been up to the North and back, having tried to volunteer for the Women’s Royal Air Force at the outbreak of war.

“He was keen to see her again, but she explained why she couldn’t – and why she couldn’t marry him as she had a little girl,” Nuala says.

Joe asked to see the child, and so Annie brought him up to Navan Road. A nun initially refused Joe entry as he wasn’t a relative. “And so my mother replied, there and then, that this was the man who was going to be Colette’s father,” Nuala says.

The couple married and Joe carried Colette, at four years old, on his shoulders out of the home down the Navan Road. They moved into a small flat and began life together.

However, shortly afterwards, Annie’s father called for her. He was very ill, his second wife had died, and he feared for his two younger boys. Annie and Joe, who knew the boys risked being sent to Artane or Goldenbridge, took them on, and the mortgage on the Cabra house. The couple had seven more children. Nuala was about 12 when she came across a love letter which her father had written to her mum.

“Annie, you painted a picture of heaven for me last night when you spoke of yourself, myself and Colette together,” the letter read. “It was then it dawned on me,” Nuala says. “And it all came out when there was an issue with Colette’s birth cert when she was about to get married.”

‘A dark secret’

“My mother always told me she had a dark, dark secret that she would tell me one day,” Colette says. “I eventually sat her down, asked if she had murdered someone or had an affair. She broke down and told me everything.”

Annie is now 94, living in Dublin, and her husband Joe has passed on. She has 31 grandchildren, 26 great-grand children, and three great-great- grandchildren.

“Colette has five children, 10 grandchildren and is the mainstay of the family,” Nuala says. “She is the essence of goodness, and was like a second mother to all of us and more. When she was working in Woolworths as a wages clerk, she brought kids from inner-city flats out to the mountains and the seaside.”

Colette never met her late birth father, but discovered his family had offered Annie support – buying her First Communion dress for instance. She discovered he had two families in England, and has met several step-siblings.

Both Colette and Nuala believe a statutory commission of investigation into mother-and-baby homes is imperative. “The Catholic Church is based on a message of love that it didn’t carry out,” says Nuala. “It prostituted that message, and women who became pregnant, and their children, were at the bottom of the scale.”