Mary Cronin was 70 when she discovered she had spent the first six years of her life in the mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway.
She was contacted by a Tusla social worker in 2015, who said a relative was looking to contact her. Before then, Cronin knew little about her early life, with memories only of being fostered by a woman in east Galway at a young age.
“To say it was a bombshell is putting it mildly,” she says. “It had never worried me where I came from. I had never even heard of Tuam. The first I had heard of it was [due to historian Catherine Corless’s work] about the graves.”
Corless found records regarding the deaths and burials of hundreds of children at Tuam, findings that were instrumental to the establishment of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.
Cronin discovered that her mother was still alive and that she had a number of siblings. While she did meet some of her siblings, she knows nothing about her father and remains reluctant to meet her mother.
“It probably is unusual, not wanting to meet her,” she says. “Sometimes it makes me wonder why, sometimes I get annoyed at myself. But the way I look at it is, she had her life to live and why should I interfere with her life?
“I hope she made a better job of it than I did because I see myself as a failure that way, in terms of family, but I made up for it in other ways, volunteering and trying to help people.”
Cronin (76) left Galway aged 16 and worked in the health sector in Co Limerick. She was married for a short time and has a son, though they have no contact today. She retired in 2003 and moved back to Galway last May. She was housed in Claregalway by Galway County Council with the help of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home Alliance.
While Cronin has no memories of her time in Tuam, she believes living there impacted her in small ways. “I’m terrified of the dark. No matter where I am, I have to have a bit of light and I always feel that that goes back to my time in Tuam,” she says.
The commission issued its final report in January, with the methodology used in compiling it criticised by survivors groups. It found that 978 children had died at Tuam and the “physical conditions were dire”at the home, owned by Galway County Council and run by the Bon Secours Sisters. On average, it found, women stayed in Tuam for less than a year but the children mostly remained until they were six or seven.
Cronin says that while the final report had its problems, she believes the commission did “a fairly good job” in highlighting the need for a “total separation between church and State” and the stigma that many survivors feel.
“There were mistakes made, but we are learning,” she says. “There are still people hiding their story, because they were adopted or fostered and the associated stigma. They’re ashamed to say they were fostered. What’s there to be ashamed of?
“You had a father the same as everybody else. That word ‘illegitimate’ should be thrown out the door, forget about it. There is no such thing.
“The biggest question is: where were the fathers? There was a father for all of those babies ... The girl was looked at and frowned upon and the father got away with murder.”
Nowadays, Cronin works with Age Friendly Ireland and goes running six or seven times a week.
“Running has always been an escape valve for me, because when things are bad or something is on my mind, I go off for a run, which has helped me through a lot of the problems I had. Life was not rosy, there were problems, but the running, it helped.”
After she was informed of her connection to Tuam, Cronin became a member of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home Alliance and keeps in regular contact with friends she has made through the group.
“There’s a bond that can’t be explained,” she says. “They were there and I was there. We are part and parcel of history. Even though physically we mightn’t have been in there together, mentally there is that connection.”