‘The nun just said to me, kiss and goodbye now, and she just whipped him away’

The religious were supposed to represent a God who preached love, and yet many showed no compassion

Mon, Jun 16, 2014, 01:00

“When it came to the signing of the papers I remember being brought over to the room. There were two men and a big, big table. I knew I was signing the baby away but I was terrified not to sign it. I remember my hand was trembling and I think it was the cruellest thing.”

That is how one mother described to me, in an interview arranged by Barnardos in 1996, the process of signing her baby over for adoption.

Powerlessness and fear, combined with invisibility, are at the heart of the story of the mother and baby homes, of which we can expect to hear a great deal more in the near future. Remember that word “invisibility”. We have our own invisible people these days, but more of that later.

“It is fair to say that when a girl became pregnant outside marriage, she lost control of her life,” I wrote on a website I put up in the late 1990s to explain to adoptees abroad that their mothers had little choice in what happened to them. (The articles from this website are now on a section of my mindfulness website at padraigomorain.com)

Fear was in families afraid of the shame of having a daughter who had become pregnant outside marriage. It was a serious matter – having an “illegitimate” baby, if it was known, would not only destroy a daughter’s own prospects of marriage but seriously damage those of any sisters she might have. So girls were disappeared into mother and baby homes or Magdalen homes.

Guaranteed invisibility

This guaranteed invisibility.

Power was in the hands of church and State, which had little regard for the feelings or rights of “unmarried mothers”, much less of their children. The Catholic Church did not want babies adopted into Protestant families and preferred to send them to Catholic families in the United States.

There was another factor at play: the absence of compassion.The 1952 Adoption Act allowed babies over a year old to be adopted abroad. So pregnant girls who were disappeared into the homes had to stay with their babies for over a year so they could be adopted to the US.

Allowed to bond

The mothers bonded with their babies, but had to get them ready themselves on a few hours’ notice to be taken away.

“The night before he went, his clothes were left out and you were told to be up at 6.30am to bathe him and get him ready for going to America. I didn’t sleep that night,” one mother said.

“I remember getting up and going in to bath him and dress him. I remember the little beige coat and the little bit of velvet on the collar, brown shoes and beige socks.

“I carried him over to the door. The nun just said to me, ‘kiss and goodbye now’, and she just whipped him away.

“Afterwards, not one came and said ‘are you lonely, how are you feeling?’.”

The religious will say they reflected attitudes in society. They certainly reflected some attitudes, but they were supposed to represent a God who preached love, and yet many showed a complete absence of compassion to these girls.

And it continued, with both mothers and adult adoptees being lied to so that they could not contact each other. St Patrick’s Guild one of the main adoption societies in the State, admitted to The Irish Times in 1997 that it had been giving misleading information to adopted people about their birth parents.

I was told later of a mother who, after I had met her, finally got the information which enabled her to find her adult child in the US – but he had been killed in a violent incident months before.

So here we are again, hearing the stories again.

We cannot undo the past, but perhaps we will be encouraged to consider today’s invisible people: the asylum-seeker families living in “direct provision”, about whom we will be writing in years to come; and the homeless families living in hotels and hostels and in whatever sort of barrack-like conditions are being got ready for them.

The invisible have not gone away.