Within the walls of a three-storey, red-brick house on Dublin’s Pembroke Street, the changing status of women in Irish society over the past half-century has played out in a very distinctive way.
“Cherish House” was the first headquarters in the 1970s for a determined group of ostracised women – unmarried mothers who had dared to refuse to hand over their babies for adoption. They found more courage in numbers as they banded together to support each other and campaign for recognition and rights for themselves and their children.
Some 45 years after Cherish, since renamed One Family to reflect the changing times, was founded, it is moving to a new base across the River Liffey, in Smithfield Square.
Here three single mothers over those decades tell their stories, showing what has and hasn’t changed for women literally left holding the baby.
Evelyn Forde (71)
"This generation cannot comprehend what it was like for single mothers then "
When Evelyn Forde became pregnant as a single woman in early 1970s Dublin, she couldn’t tell her elderly parents, her friends or her employer.
"This generation cannot comprehend what it was like for single mothers then," she says, feeling quite emotional at the memories. The one person in Ireland she did confide in, the baby's father, didn't want to know.
“The father I thought was somewhat different than to what he turned out to be. He wasn’t giving any emotional support whatsoever. The relationship was broken up completely.”
For six months she hid her pregnancy, and her sister, who lived abroad, referred her to a Columban priest in London. Her sister also had friends in London who Forde was able to stay with before the birth.
Having been signed off “sick” for “pernicious anaemia” from her job in a semi-State agency, she thought she could go to London for her last trimester, have the baby adopted and then return to pick up the reins of her life.
Leaving the country when pregnant was was a very lonely and devastating experience
“But it didn’t happen – thank God,” she says, 44 years later, speaking at her home in Palmerstown, Dublin. Leaving the country when pregnant was “a very lonely and devastating experience” but it began to alter her mindset.
“I did have a lot of positives by going to London – once you got out of Ireland you felt you were out of a very closed society, in not nearly as judgmental and, dare I say it, more Christian country.” Although the Catholic adoption agency she contacted over there was called the Crusade of Rescue – “it says a lot,” she remarks.
She was “lucky” in the people she was staying with, that one was a social worker and the other a public health nurse, both Irish. The landlady, also Irish and a public health nurse, kept saying that nobody was telling her to have her child adopted so why should they tell this woman she must.
More importantly, Forde hadn’t anticipated the surge of maternal love when her son, Robert, was born.
“Who can really express the deep feeling within you, the emotion of childbirth and when the child is put into your arms? It’s the pivotal moment of your life,” she says. “How can you not keep your child?”
With her “hormones all over the place”, she left him with foster parents in London while she made up her mind what to do. She couldn’t just arrive home with him anyway, with no place to live.
Forde returned to Dublin and to her job. She saw how male colleagues could pay a mortgage and raise a family on their one income and she couldn’t see why she could not do the same – although she had no female role models, apart from some women she had only just met in the fledgling support organisation for unmarried mothers, Cherish, that was operating out of founder Maura O’Dea’s home on Kimmage Road before it secured the house on Pembroke Street.
Saying I am a single parent, I am an unmarried mother – it was like a gay coming out
“Going to Cherish, your confidence zoomed,” she explains. “You had to break barriers by saying I am a single parent, I am an unmarried mother – like a gay coming out.”
She had been living in a flat with people “and two of them could not move out fast enough in case they were tarnished” by association, she says.
In deciding to keep Robert, Forde faced the prospect of telling her parents, although her father was not informed for over a year as her mother was afraid he would bar her from their house in Co Mayo.
All in all, it was about 14 or 15 months before she established herself and Robert as a one-parent family in their own home – “a grotty little flat” – and it took a while before she had the courage to tell people in work.
At that time only 10 per cent of children born outside marriage were kept by their parents. “That is telling you a lot about the prevailing attitudes,” she points out. It was only women like her, who were financially independent, that were able to do it. Apart from her salary, she got “sporadic” maintenance from Robert’s father.
Cherish’s first political campaign was for a welfare payment and an unmarried mothers’ allowance of £8.50 was introduced in 1973.
Growing up as the son of a single mother, Robert did, she says, feel isolated after he started school. All the other children were going home to their mothers for lunch and he wasn’t – so the fact that not only was she not married but also out working was a “double whammy” for him.
However, thanks to Forde’s involvement with Cherish, he did get to know other children in a similar situation. And by the time he was seven, his mother had met his stepfather-to-be and he started to have a male role model in his life.
Sharon Keane (40)
"I am lucky – I don’t see being a lone parent as a disadvantage”
When Sharon Keane found out she was pregnant 13 years ago, she knew her life was going to change completely. There has been no involvement with her daughter’s father since then – just one conversation.
She was working in the hotel industry in Galway city at the time and she decided the best thing to do would be to move home nearer her family, in Connemara, which meant giving up work for a while.
For Keane that move was a really positive change in her life. “It brought me closer to my family. They were a huge support to me.”
She doesn’t think there is any huge stigma attached now to being a lone parent. However, “on a personal basis people are fine but on the bigger scale they’re not”, she continues. “They will say ‘I am not talking about you, I am not talking about Mary up the road, I am talking about in general’. But the ‘in general’ is ‘Mary up the road’,” she says.
People make assumptions about rent allowance, council housing, medical card and social welfare benefits, which are not necessarily true.
“They think you can skip the queue for council houses and things, which is not true. I have been on the list for 12 years. That’s frustrating.”
She and her daughter Aoife (12) live in a rental home near her parents’ house in Letterfrack. She has a part-time cleaning job and her parents help with childcare.
“They are a huge support” not only with childcare but “to chat things out with – if you don’t have a partner, you don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off.”
She took a financial hit when she gave up her full-time job in Galway and then the restructuring of payments to lone parents in 2015 had a big impact, leaving her about €70 a week worse off.
“I was very angry and upset at how lone parents were treated,” she says. “I felt very much that if you were trying to improve yourself at all, there were huge obstacles put in your way.”
After she and another estimated 25,500 lone parents were moved off the one-parent family payment that year – in her case on to the family income supplement – she had to get used to living on less.
“The biggest thing I had to cut down was heating the house.” It was woolly jumpers and extra duvets on the bed.
She tries not to involve Aoife in her financial worries “but she would know there are times of the year when we have to be more careful. I don’t know how people who are not working manage at all.”
She wanted to go back to college and do a master’s but couldn’t because money was too tight, although it is still something she hopes to do before long.
Keane found it very frustrating that the public didn’t get behind opposition to the cuts. She believes this was because they were presented as being a way of encouraging lone parents to go out to work when their child reached the age of seven, implying that they weren’t already working.
“But at the same time, the people who were working were the only ones who lost money,” she says. “It almost put working lone parents and non-working parents against each other.”
Despite the outpouring of revulsion and seeming compassion at the news in 2014 of the Tuam babies scandal, she wondered if societal attitudes had really changed that much. However, she felt she was getting bogged down in anger and decided to focus on the positives.
“The longer I have been a lone parent, the less difficult I find that. It is so much better than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago, but there is still very much a presumption that you are a bit of a scrounger.”
As she receives no maintenance from Aoife’s father, does she think he has been let off scot-free?
I understand why people chase people for maintenance, but I think sometimes by doing that, you bring something negative into your child's life
“It’s complicated,” she replies. “I had a choice; I chose to become a parent. I didn’t want someone in her life who wasn’t really in her life. I don’t think I could have forced him anyway.
“I think he had the right to have that choice as well. I understand why people chase people for maintenance, but I think sometimes by doing that, you bring something negative into your child’s life. If you are forcing it on somebody else, you are making a huge choice for them.”
She believes that it is very hard to make State policy that is good because every situation is so different. “Every mother is different, every father is different, every conception is different.”
Keane has always been totally open with Aoife and she believes that being in a one-parent family has not been a problem for her.
“It was easier that I was a lone parent from the beginning because there was no confusion; there was no disappointment because there was no expectation.”
Keane has not felt the need to network with other lone parents, as she has lots of friends of all types around her, but she thinks it is great that organisations such as One Family are there for people who do.
“I don’t really think of myself as a lone parent. I don’t see it as a disadvantage,” she adds. “I understand that there are a lot of people for whom it is a disadvantage but I think I am lucky. I don’t think it particularly impacts on me.”
Lee Nagle (26)
"Now it's fathers who are being questioned for turning their backs on children "
Getting pregnant wasn't in Lee Nagle's life plan when she was in the second year of studying for a degree in government at University College Cork.
“It was an absolutely huge shock.” And when she told the father of her now four-year-old daughter Hollie that she was pregnant, he already had plans to move away.
“He just said ‘look, I am continuing with my plans and I don’t want to be involved’.” So she has not seen him since, gets no financial support from him and “unfortunately” he has no contact with Hollie.
As a lone parent, she has never encountered any disapproval to her face, although when she sees derogatory remarks in social media about single mothers, “I do take that personally”.
In ways she thinks societal disapproval has “rightly” shifted more towards uninvolved fathers, questioning how they can turn their backs on their own children.
While she would not defend Hollie’s father, she stresses that she is “perfectly happy” with her life and thinks it could have been more stressful if he had stayed around.
When her daughter asks questions, she tells the truth. “She knows his name, that he moved away and that he was not ready for a baby.”
At the outset, Nagle was “obviously scared”, but breaking the news to her parents, “made me realise I could do it. They were totally, totally supportive.” Her parents are separated and at the time she was living with her mother in a rented two-bedroom apartment in Cork city – where she still lives with Hollie.
Nagle had been going through a rough patch when she became pregnant and was facing a repeat of her second-year college exams, which she then abandoned. She did continue her job in a sports shop but started attending a PLC instead, first to do a broadcasting course and then to study culture and history.
The latter course “was probably the best thing I could have ever done”. The staff on it helped her to return to UCC to finish her degree, where she is now in her third year.
"They really helped me feel that I deserved to go back," she says, speaking from Brussels where she is doing an internship in the Sinn Féin office in the European Parliament.
She only stopped her part-time work before Christmas because it was just too much with college and caring for Hollie. While she finds the bureaucracy around social welfare payments rather intimidating, she totally understands the need for rigour. “But when you are queuing up, it is easy to feel downtrodden.”
She has three more years before her one-parent family payment is due to be stopped but she does not intend, all going well, to still be on social welfare by the time Hollie is seven.
Her “pipe dream” is a home of their own, to get a bit of independence and no longer have to share a bedroom with her daughter. She also reckons her own mother “deserves a bit of peace and quiet”.
One Family is fund-raising for refurbishment of its new building. See onefamily.ie