Marianvale survivor: ‘My son was taken away and no one cares’
Oonagh McAleer still closes herself away after Newry mother and baby home experience
Northern Ireland’s mother and baby homes closed decades ago, but their legacy continues to have an impact on birth mothers and their children.
Oonagh McAleer is chairwoman of the group Birth Mothers and Their Children for Justice NI, which is calling for a public inquiry into the former homes.
Ms McAleer was 17 and pregnant when she was sent to live in Marianvale mother and baby home in Newry in 1979. The home, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters, opened in the 1950s and closed in the early 1980s.
Ms McAleer, from Co Tyrone, told Belfast-based data journalism project Detail Data: “I was in the early stages of pregnancy and I was sent there initially by the priest and social services. I was brought there by a social worker in a car. I didn’t know where I was going.
“After a couple of hours at Marianvale, I realised that I was being put away. I didn’t know how long it was going to be for and I thought I was never going to get out of there.”
Ms McAleer’s name was changed and she was told not to speak about her family. “I worked from the day that I went into the home. We cleaned the bathrooms, washed the floors and did washing in big Belfast sinks. I remember cleaning the floors when I was heavily pregnant.
“We weren’t allowed to say where we came from or to talk about who our families were. It was mental torture.
“I was so afraid. No one explained why things were happening or why we were being punished. It was cold and it was scary and I had nobody to talk to.
“Every day seemed like a year. Everything got stripped from you as punishment, because I got pregnant.”
A different person
After she gave birth in Daisy Hill Hospital by Caesarean section, it was three days before she was told her baby was a boy.
“I never seen him and I never held him and I never fed him. I never got to see his wee face when he was born. That’s one of the hardest things because I really didn’t know why they wouldn’t let me see him or let me feed him, because I carried him for nine months and they stripped that away from me.
“I went into that home as Oonagh and I came out of it as a different person.
“The fear has stayed with me. I still just want to close myself away in life. My son was taken away from me and no one cares.”
Ms McAleer made contact with her son eight years ago.
“He had his life and it was very hard to get back what I’ve lost and what he had lost as well. Thankfully he is healthy, but I lost my baby and I lost all those years and nothing will ever replace that time.
“The nuns and the government did this to people and they have to take that into consideration and take a look at what they did years ago to girls like me. We were vulnerable and we were innocent and, to be quite honest with you, the men got away with it. They carried on with their lives.
“I am calling out there to any woman who has been affected in any way by any of the institutions, mother and baby homes, to not be afraid and to come forward.
“It took me a long time to build up the courage to do this, but I think it’s the right thing because it’s the only way forward. It’s the only way that I’m going to get relief and justice for what happened.”
Amnesty International will hold an event in Belfast on Wednesday with Birth Mothers and Their Children for Justice NI to highlight their call for a public inquiry into mother and baby homes.
Detail Data contacted the Good Shepherd Sisters to ask for a comment on the treatment of women and children at Marianvale. The order was also asked for a comment on the forensic examination currently taking place of land at the site of the former home.
A statement issued on behalf of the order said: “The Good Shepherd Sisters were the owners and occupiers of the Marianvale Mother and Baby Home, which opened in 1955 and closed in 1984. We wish to categorically state that there were no burials of babies, infants or adults in the grounds during this time.
“Adoptions from Marianvale were managed through Social Services, registered adoption agencies and the courts, in accordance with adoption legislation in Northern Ireland at that time. Should any persons have any matters of concern in this regard we ask that they immediately bring it to the attention on the NI authorities.
“We will deal directly with the appropriate authorities, as required, on all such matters.
“Should persons who spent time in our care wish to contact us directly on any matter, we will assist as best we can.”
Birth Mothers and their Children for Justice NI can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on conditions in Northern Ireland’s mother and baby homes see thedetail.tv/data. Detail Data is a partnership between investigative journalism site, The Detail and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action