Scandal, silence, shame: the careful retelling of a buried story

A new NUI Galway production responds to the lived experiences notably missing from the report into mother and baby homes

Drama and theatre studies students from NUI Galway perform in Nochtaithe (Unveiled), an artistic response to the survivor testimonies gathered and archived as part of NUI Galway’s Tuam oral history project. Photograph: Aengus McMahon

Drama and theatre studies students from NUI Galway perform in Nochtaithe (Unveiled), an artistic response to the survivor testimonies gathered and archived as part of NUI Galway’s Tuam oral history project. Photograph: Aengus McMahon

 

“I’m like a deer looking for running water. I like to be out. I don’t want to be indoors at all. I’m not a home bird.” It strikes at the heart. Who would be a home bird, emerging from a “home” like she had? Mary Cronin, a survivor of the Tuam mother and baby home, talking about her life for NUI Galway’s Tuam oral history project, evokes how survivors of such institutions feel now. Teresa echoes it in her archived oral history: “I’m slow to use the word ‘home’ because it was never a home.” They are among several survivors now central to Nochtaithe (Unveiled) which launched this week.

Created by Dr Miriam Haughton and students from NUI G’s drama and theatre studies faculty, the 45-minute piece – a play, a film, a documentary? – is part of the Tuam project.

Though it stresses the performance is a response to those oral testimonies, and not re-enactments or documentary, it is creatively adjacent to them. Thus it weaves together: poignant dance with nine white cots in the college’s open quad as Colm Mac Con Iomaire plays Emer’s Dream, haunting and steadfast, on violin; audio from survivors’ stories and from news reports; lists upon heartbreaking lists of the names and ages of babies who died in Tuam; interviews with historians Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley, Dr John Cunningham and archivist Dr Barry Houlihan, and evocative vignettes written and performed by the students.

‘Maddening’

The result is a moving, maddening, creative work echoing the experiences of the women and girls. Covid masks bearing words picked out from the testimonies say it powerfully: scandal, silence, shame, forgotten, buried. The piece also contextualises the homes within Irish history and class structures, unveiling the invisibility of the experiences of those excluded from society.

Just months after the much contested Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, Nochtaithe responds to and centralises the lived experiences notably missing from the report into the great stain of mother and baby homes.

Buckley, in a webinar after the performance, says the core of the oral history project is “allowing people to tell their stories in the way they want to. And that may change over time.” Education is important, “so that this will not happen again. It is part of our history. The way forward is to be as open as possible. We need to give proper prominence to the lived experience of survivors… and they need to become part of the official report. We’re just there to amplify their stories.” Disseminating testimonies, on the website, the podcast, and now artistically, is also crucial.

‘Hamfistedly’ done

More than two years into the four-year oral history project, she and Cunningham talk about the “privileging” of evidence, with some sources given more weight. He references the commission’s executive summary, concluding there was no evidence of duress or forced adoption, which “was not supported really by the evidence, even within the evidence on the other 3,000 pages” of the report. It was “hamfistedly” done, with “economy with the facts in what was recorded”, yet this was given more credibility than the testimonies.

Survivors talk afterwards about the importance for them of new generations knowing about the institutions. Christine Carroll nearly cried watching Nochtaithe: “There’s so much in it I remembered, bringing up a lot of emotion. In a way it’s good. We had it hidden inside of us for so long. We realise now we shouldn’t have kept it a secret.”

They can blow their pipe for as long as they want but they’re not going to help us, we’re the ones that are facing it

The oral history project and this performance, “the generation that’s coming up, the students – they’re the ones helping us, in a way. You might say they’re counselling us more than anything else.”

She wants to talk about it all, “even awkward questions. We want everything to come out. We’re not feeling ashamed any more. We’re proud of ourselves. We don’t care what the Government does, that they don’t give two damns. They can blow their pipe for as long as they want but they’re not going to help us, we’re the ones that are facing it.”

Pat Duffy says he has got “great backing-up by the young people” since 2014. “They come to me and support me and stood up for me and my rights, and what happened to me. We suffered at the hands of the State and church, especially the religious orders. It’s hard to believe the emotion, the effect of this through the years. It’s sad we had to wait so long with this tormenting in our minds, our nerves. Sleep at night thinking about what happened to us. It is disgusting.”

Apologised

He says the performance “brought it all out again and showed it, what’s really happened, a history that’s still there”. He says the Government and the church “care nothing”. His local bishop “never bothered his backside until I wrote to him and he apologised to me. We were long enough in the dark.”

Carroll recalls: “When I went up to the commission I was only five minutes in the room. I felt they had no heed on us. It was just a day out, you might say.” Duffy hopes for redress for the harm, and healthcare and medical cards for survivors. Carroll wants “for this to not happen again, and for church and the nuns to not have so much power so everybody’s afraid of them... The nuns got their money for us and that’s all they cared about. They got away with it, and they’re still getting away with it. But we’re not bitter. We just want people to know what happened to us and not to happen the next generation. I’m getting counselling – that’s the beginning. And I have a good life with my family.”

Nochtaithe is online until May 31st on bealtaine.ie and on the NUI Galway Tuam oral history page https://www.nuigalway.ie/tuam-oral-history/

Recording of testimonies continues: tuamoralhistory@nuigalway.ie