Long Lost Family: Born Without Trace review – powerful investigation of personal pain behind mother and baby homes

Television: Dubliner Martina Evenden discovers unknown cousin while cousin finds instant extended family

British film-makers have a mixed record when it comes to retelling the history of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes. The injustices of these institutions – virtual prisons for so-called “fallen” women and clearing houses for their babies before adoption abroad – were unflinchingly detailed by Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters from 2002 (set in Ireland, filmed in Scotland). But then there was last year’s Hammer Horror mishap, The Women in the Wall, which dishonoured the suffering of the women sent to the laundries with its hokey plot and a tone that lurched from twee to hysterical.

Now, Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell are the latest to turn to this stain upon 20th-century Irish history with their series Long Lost Family: Born Without Trace – a spin-off of their blockbusting tear-jerker Long Lost Family, in which blood relatives separated for decades are brought back together (ITV, Monday, 9pm). The subject, as the latest season begins, is “foundlings” – infants abandoned by their parents and who grew up knowing nothing of their family history.

One such example is Dubliner Martina Evenden, found outside a church in the city in 1967. Several years ago, she uploaded her DNA to a public website, hoping it might help her contact her birth mother. It was a shot in the dark that paid off when researchers for Long Lost Family contacted her while looking into the origins of another foundling, Thomas Yeo.

Thomas is two years older than Martina and was left outside London at a train station in Reading in England. Martina’s DNA sample confirmed the two as cousins – Martina’s father, Joseph, and Thomas’s mother, Peggy, were siblings.

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Martina, an office administrator, paints a vivid picture of the night she was discovered on that step. “The Sacristan came to lock up. That’s where he found me. He thought I was a cat. Then he heard a cry and looked a bit closer. There I was abandoned, bits of blood still on my body, nothing else with me.”

Thomas travels to Dublin and takes the Luas to meet Martina. Beyond knowing they are cousins, they are still in the dark regarding their origins. “Here we’re guessing, making our own little stories,” says Martina. “Somebody has to know something.”

The experts continue to dig. Thomas receives the sad news that his mother went to Australia, where she died – but that his father lived out his life in Carrick-on-Shannon in Co Leitrim, where he was married with a family. His children had no idea they had a half-sibling in England When they meet, they are dumbstruck when their dad’s lookalike walks into the room. Thomas is astonished, too, to discover an instant extended family. Growing up, he was told he had “Irish eyes”. Now, here is among his own, and he doesn’t quite know how to process the shock.

Martina, for her part, learns that her mother had three previous children and that, before giving birth to her fourth child, she had ended up at the Sean Ross Abbey Mother and Baby home in Roscrea, Co Tipperary – a notorious institution where 1,090 “illegitimate children” died over 37 years. One of her half-siblings is in Wicklow, and Martina goes to meet her.

Their conversation takes place off-camera. Afterwards, Martina tries to keep the tears at bay. At the end of a moving episode, she speaks quietly yet emotionally about the mistreatment of women such as her mother – a black mark against Ireland that should never be forgotten and which this solid documentary passionately, respectfully explores. “All that shame. It shouldn’t have been like that,” she says. “It was all wrong.”