Government must help trace removed babies, sibling urges

Daughter of woman held in Mother and Baby home is searching for half-brother

The Irish authorities must help the families of children who were sent to the United States for adoption to trace them, the daughter of one woman held in a Mother and Baby home in Ireland last night declared.

Helen Baker's search for her half-brother, Oliver Cullen, began after her mother Margaret died three years ago, still missing the child taken from her a half-century before - her only memory a fading, treasured black-and-white photograph.

Last night, Baker was one of a small group to gather outside the Irish Embassy in London to demand that the Irish Government holds a proper investigation into Ireland's Mother and Baby homes.

Margaret Cullen's journey to Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea, Co Tipperary, run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, began in Rathvilly, Co Carlow in 1956, after she became pregnant.


“She had been the eldest of 10. Her family didn’t have any choice. The local priest told her that an example had had to be made of her,” Baker told The Irish Times.

Cullen’s resulting son, Oliver, was “taken away from her” and sent for adoption to the US when he was 4 and a half years old. “She was told never to try to track him down - that she would ruin his life if she did.”

Three years ago, her mother died, leading Baker to take up the effort to find the half-brother she has now known about for nearly two decades.

So far efforts to trace him have failed, since the Irish authorities have refused to give her any information because her mother died three years ago. “But he was my brother,” she said.

Following her time in Roscrea, Baker’s mother came to Cardiff and married quickly: “She craved stability, so that is why she did that, maybe not well. But she was happy with my stepfather.”

Her mother revealed her past when mother and daughter sat by her stepfather’s side when he was dying in hospital in 1995: “We spent a lot of time together then. She had always intended to tell me.

“I am glad that she did,” Baker commented, “but she felt that she could never try to find him because of what the nuns had drilled into her. It was just like the Philomena movie.”

After her son had been taken from her, Cullen had suffered a nervous breakdown and was treated with electric shock therapy in an Irish hospital, Baker added.

“I believed it caused her huge trauma. She lost part of her memory as a result of the treatment. All I have of my brother is a photograph of him taken by the nuns when he was about three or so.

“I don’t have him, but he doesn’t know anything about his family, even his medical history. There is a history of heart problems in our family. Three of my mother’s six brothers died from heart attacks.

“I am upset that my mother had to go through all of that. It is unbelievable that people had to suffer in that way and be treated like that. I want to be able to trace my brother,” she continued. She said he would be 57 years old if still alive.

Avril Egan, one of the organisers of last night's protest, said an inquiry should be led by an international figure and should be properly resourced, unlike past inquiries into the Magdalene Laundries and residential institutions.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Egan complained the Irish abroad and foreigners seem to be more angered than were people living in Ireland by the revelations that hundreds of babies had been buried in unmarked graves in Tuam.

Meanwhile, Phyllis Morgan, who helps to run the London-based Irish Women Survivors' Network, thanked Catherine Corless, the Tuam historian who unearthed the story of the graves in the Mother and Baby home there.

“We know in the weeks and months to come there will be many skeletons of babies discovered in other homes. Shame on Ireland and shame on those living in comfortable Ireland who looked the other way,” she said.

Meanwhile, Fiona Cahill told the story of her grandmother, Philomena, who was sent to a Red Cross-run Mother and Babies in London after she had a daughter, Maria, Fiona's mother.

Mother and child were from there sent to a Mother and Babies home in Castlepollard, Co Westmeath, Ms Cahill told last night's protest. "I know my grandma in her innocence believed them when they said they would help her, that she would work for them and that she could keep her baby.

“I know she desperately, desperately wanted that. Maria was taken from her and sent to another nursery without her consent or knowledge. I know Philomena never signed anything and I know that took a lot of guts,” she went on.

Her mother Maria was given by the nuns to “a wealthy married couple in Ireland who wanted a perfect little girl to be a big sister for their baby boy. They were willing to pay large donations.”

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is Ireland and Britain Editor with The Irish Times