Still searching for her mother after decades of not knowing

Fri, Sep 21, 2012, 01:00

Four in 10 of those held in Irish institutions left for Britain. A support service is trying to help

ANN LUNDY, now 67, looks younger than her years. Like many others who spent their childhoods in mother and baby homes run by nuns, she travelled yesterday to the London Irish Centre in Camden in north London.

Some have been making the journey every Thursday for years for events organised by the London Irish Survivors’ Outreach Service.

Some come for help, some for advice about education, and some just to talk.

Born in the Roscommon mother and baby home in 1945, Lundy spent five years there after her mother Julia had left for Birmingham. “I remember being in a cot on my own for what seemed an awful long time.” By seven, she was in St Joseph’s convent in Summerhill, Athlone: “We were cared for in a fashion, but never loved,” she said. Medical standards improved after a nun returned from missionary work. The food did not, however, leaving many under-nourished.

The names of her mother and father, who had been married but whose relationship was in trouble before Ann’s birth, were written on her Confirmation declaration: “I got quite excited; I had never known that before,” she says.

By 15, she was free, but alone. Still seeking answers, she went back to Roscommon. The nuns did not want to tell her anything, before finally relenting: “They told me that my grandmother lived down the road.

“My grandmother was on the doorstep when I got down there. She recognised me from my mother. She nearly fainted. She had to be carried into the house. She just told me that my mother was wild,” says Ann.

Three years later, she moved to England. “Eventually, I found that an aunt lived in Kensal Green – Kathleen. We just buried her last week. She was fantastic. She never turned me away; I got married from her house.

“I used to go to her house every Sunday for lunch. She was the nearest thing to a mother that I ever had,” says Ann. Her aunt was not able to tell her where her mother was to be found, and decades on she has failed to track her down.

“We have the birth certificate, but there is no death certificate. She may have got married again and changed her name,” says Ann’s friend, Phyllis Morgan, who now runs the Irish Survivors’ Advice and Support Service.

On her deathbed, her grandmother told Ann she had had two brothers, but said nothing more. Neighbours “closed the door” in her face when she asked for information. Years passed before she discovered that one had died at just three months, the second aged just 10.

For years, Phyllis Morgan has worked for British-based Irish survivors. Like them, she was born in a mother and baby home, in her case St Patrick’s on the Navan Road in Dublin, after her pregnant Waterford mother, Nellie Wall, was “thrown out” by her family.

“ was in the sewing room as a punishment. She might have seen me once a week. She was not allowed to come and feed me. That was done by the staff that were there,” Phyllis tells The Irish Times.

Unlike Ann, Phyllis was beaten during her time in St Philomena’s, Stillorgan: “There were appalling beatings all of the time in St Philomena’s – if you weren’t being beaten then you saw others being beaten.

“They used hurleys, they used to shave off the curve. My God, did that hurt. It happened on a weekly basis – half the time you hadn’t a clue why you were being beaten. The nun could just have been in a bad mood.

“You lived in fear all of the time. It was run by the Daughters of Charity. If you didn’t put out your hand then you got hit on the elbow to make sure that you did put out your hand the next time you were told to.”

Yesterday’s open day at the London Irish Centre was part of efforts to reach deep into the Irish community, given that four in 10 of those held in institutions in the Republic left for Britain, often at the first available opportunity.

“Very few in the agencies here are aware of the severity of abuse suffered, so even those presenting with the most obvious issues may not receive the levels of sensitivity can provide,” says the centre’s director of welfare, Jeff Moore.

Many struggle with problems “but the extraordinary thing is how resilient so many of them are, how so many have built good lives for themselves and their families. They are absolutely inspirational,” he says.

However, they rarely tell more of their stories than they need to. Walking up the steps to the centre yesterday, Ann Lundy meets the husband of her best friend of 35 years.

“What are you doing here?” he asks. He too, it emerges, had spent time in institutions.

Neither had ever mentioned it.