Breaking the silence: The untold stories of mother and baby homes

An event at the National Concert Hall aims to give a voice to survivors and catalyse change

Irish-Sierra Leonean artist and performer known as Loah  (Sallay Garnett) travelled across the world to trace her grandfather after making a DNA connection. File photograph: The Irish Times

Irish-Sierra Leonean artist and performer known as Loah (Sallay Garnett) travelled across the world to trace her grandfather after making a DNA connection. File photograph: The Irish Times

 

Back when we had more spontaneous conversations, maybe at a party or on a train, people told me about secrets within their families. Whenever I said I was writing about the mother and baby home institutions, everyone seemed to have a story: a mother sent away by a priest and separated from her child, a newfound cousin searching for answers, a relative who helped transport babies for the nuns, a death-bed confession of an aunt still asking forgiveness. Most families in Ireland are affected in some way by the ongoing legacy of the institutions, whether they know it or not.

I stay in touch with a man fostered out from the Tuam institution who is searching for his mother, while working up the courage to tell his children he was born there. Three years after the Irish State promised a full forensic excavation at Tuam, families and survivors are still waiting. Many people are still afraid to speak. I stood in the kitchen of a woman who named her second-born son after her first-born son, who was taken from her by the nuns in the 1980s. She has never told her children, the fear of judgment drilled into her, but she is secretly searching for him. Her friend has a tattoo of the Maya Angelou quote: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

It is through stories and songs that Irish people have defied silences. I think of Christy Moore and Sinéad O’Connor singing “everybody knew, nobody said” together, about the death of Ann Lovett, as well as the women and girls whose names we’ll never know, who were condemned and silenced. I wanted to bring together different generations of writers and musicians whose lives have been affected by the religious-run institutions and a wider system of silence, to share their own experiences. As part of the International Literature Festival Dublin, these creative responses will be shared on the stage of the National Concert Hall this Saturday, for an event called Breaking the Silence. While the State has sealed away records, and survivors say the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes contradicted their testimonies, Ireland has reached a pivotal moment. Many people across this island are calling for justice for survivors and sharing their own stories to catalyse change.

Even during lockdown, conversations continued. During a Zoom gathering, I heard Sallay Matu Garnett, the Irish-Sierra Leonean artist and performer known as Loah, first speak about her own connection to this legacy. She starred as Mary Magdalene in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, researching how the church misrepresented her as a penitent. Garnett was writing a new song about how the institutions affected her own family. Secrecy and barriers to records almost prevented her having any information about her grandfather, who she travelled across the world to trace after making a DNA connection.

Terri Harrison, a mother sent to the institutions and a singer, told me about her “years of silence”, when it felt impossible to speak openly about having been “abducted”, sent back to Ireland by the Crusade of Rescue and incarcerated in two different mother and baby institutions. When she couldn’t speak she would write songs and poems for the son who was taken from her. In the 1990s she set up secret meetings with other women who had been sent to the mother and baby institutions. A strong-willed and understanding woman who was a sex worker in Dublin gave them a space to meet. Women told their families they were going to a book club. During those meetings, they shared experiences with each other they had held within for so long. Many mothers still feel unable to speak because of the shame that was imposed on them. I spoke to one woman who was sent away to Sean Ross Abbey after a sexual assault. She said her friends at Mass would denounce survivors as “anti-church”, not knowing she was a survivor herself, which made her feel unable to ever speak to them about her experience.

There is still soft-spoken fury in the voice of Majella Moynihan, who broke the silence around the persecution she faced as a young garda for having sex outside marriage. Moynihan says survivors like herself are still faced with breaking down “the untruths” they were told by people in power: “that we were nothing”. The nuns who ran the industrial school where she grew up would tell her she was nothing and she was made to feel the same by the authorities that forced her to give her son up for adoption through an anti-choice Catholic agency that only shut down recently.

While writing Republic of Shame a friend told me her aunt was sent to a mother and baby institution in 1988, the same year I was born in Dublin to parents not yet married, only months after the status of illegitimacy was abolished. I have met people born the same year as me who were adopted through the religious-run institutions and agencies and there are younger people only beginning to search for answers.

The last mother and baby home closed in 2006. The children of survivors are inheriting the injustice of being denied the right to information and identity. But the silences also stretch beyond the institutions. Earlier this year Dundalk folk group The Mary Wallopers shared a petition calling for people adopted in Ireland to have equal right to their identity. They wrote that their father always believed their sister was illegally adopted and is still alive. Brothers Charles and Andrew Hendy will speak about their parents, who were young and in a “mixed marriage”, as unions between Catholics and Protestants were known, were told their sister had died but never had proof or a grave to visit. They campaigned for justice during the scandal of children’s remains being kept without consent for medical research.

As newly proposed legislation promises to uphold the right of adopted people to their birth information and identity, playwright and adoption rights activist Noelle Brown sees this event as being “an important artistic response by survivors to express publicly, through word and song, their lived experiences” and “an opportunity to redress the damage done to survivors’ testimonies in the commission of investigation report”. She hopes it can encourage more people to speak to each other and to speak out for change.

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