Category Archives: Magdalene Laundries

The Last Piece of Dirty Carpet: Adoption in Ireland

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Bessboro, Cork, 1961

The tides are finally turning…

Twenty years I’ve been at this, promoting and advocating for the rights of adopted people in and from Ireland (and in the US). We’ve talked, cajoled, written, and held countless meetings with successive governments in that period.  A small but fearless band of us connected in the early days of the Internet, spanning the Atlantic. It was the first time I’d ever spoken with people adopted in and from Ireland in my life.  We eventually began a Yahoo! group, which even today continues to receive members and posts. Some of us who had been ‘banished’ to the US, particularly in the Northeast, formed a small group (Adopted Citizens of Eire).

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Solidarity for Magdalenes, 2009

The topics have certainly been well-covered, even internationally. In 1989, activist and survivor Paddy Doyle led the charge with his excellent The God Squad. In 1997, former RTÉ journalist Mike Milotte researched and published his results on the trafficking of children from Ireland to the US in his seminal Banished Babies (updated in 2012). Mary Raftery and Eoin O’Sullivan had written Suffer the Little Children on the heels of Raftery’s award-winning three-part series States of Fear on RTÉ in 1999.  Stephen Humphries produced an excellent documentary on the Magdalene Laundries, Sex in a Cold Climate, in 1997 and it eventually became the basis for Peter Mullan’s award-winning feature film The Magdalene Sisters in 2002.  BBC also released the documentary Sinners in 2002. The latest, and perhaps most widely-seen chronicle of Irish adoption, is the award-winning film Philomena. The film was inspired by Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book,  The Lost Son of Philomena Lee. And our heroine, the real-life Philomena Lee, has been playing a blinder as one of the most eloquent, gracious and courageous spokeswomen for Irish mothers of loss. Thanks to her good work, Adoption Rights Alliance has now partnered with The Philomena Project, and it set the cogs in motion toward the most recent explosion and revelation in Tuam.

Our merry band in Ireland, the US, and the UK eventually formed AdoptionIreland: The Adopted Peoples Association of Ireland and began the first full-throttle campaign to restore the rights of adopted adults. We were bolstered by a wave of adoption activism in the US, and particularly informed by the work of Bastard Nation.  Eventually, AdoptionIreland and those of us involved in it withered from burnout. Sometimes it becomes prudent to stop banging your head against a brick wall, hide behind the sofa and take a break. But in the interim,  some of my intrepid colleagues and I, whose mothers had been in Magdalene Laundries in addition to the mother-baby homes, found the energy and impetus and decided to fight the cause of the Magdalene women. We founded Justice for Magdalenes (now JFM Research) in 2003, and began a long campaign to seek restorative justice and redress for those women. In 2008, some of our original AdoptionIreland core group were rejuvenated enough to resume battle, and Adoption Rights Alliance was formed, quietly but diligently working with a small group to foment change at the legislative level.

Philomena Lee at her son Anthony/Michael Hess’ grave, Roscrea, Tipperary, January 2014

Throughout this work and the long campaign for adoption rights, we’ve often talked about the children left behind, buried in mass graves on the properties of many of the mother-baby homes in Ireland, or at the Angel’s Plot in Glasnevin and Mt St Jerome’s, Dublin.  Shortly after Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s arrival in Dublin in 2004, appointed as ‘cleaner extraordinaire’ by Rome to deal with Ireland’s many problems of child/women abuse and rape, two of my JFM colleagues, Angela Murphy and Claire McGettrick, met with him to discuss the Magdalenes, mass graves and adoption rights issues. None of this is new.

We saw a glimmer of hope in 1999, when the Irish government finally decided to lift the lid and investigate industrial schools, residential homes, mother-baby homes, vaccine trials and Magdalene Laundries. But it was too much — too massive a horror — for them to cope with. So sadly, the mother-baby homes, those of us subjected to illegal vaccine trials, and Magdalene Laundries were left behind in that investigation. More than ten years passed before we were finally able to achieve a small measure of justice for Magdalene survivors.

origcert
Original Irish birth certificateThere is no doubt some of the reticence to peek into the dark past of Ireland’s history of adoption involves the fathers. Oh yes, those daddies. Frequently known as “Mr. Diagonal Line” for those of us with dodgy birth certificates. Some (or perhaps even many – we’ll likely never know) were men of standing: government officials, the clergy, prominent businessmen. So of course we can’t sully their “good reputations,” right? But the scab of that “old boy club” secret has finally got to come off, however painful. Ireland must finally deal with and it appears the collective will of the public demands it.

There is no doubt some of the reticence to peek into the dark past of Ireland’s history of adoption involves the fathers. Oh yes, those daddies. Frequently known as “Mr. Diagonal Line” for those of us with dodgy birth certificates. Some (or perhaps even many – we’ll likely never know) were men of standing: government officials, the clergy, prominent businessmen. So of course we can’t sully their “good reputations,” right? But the scab of that “old boy club” secret has finally got to come off, however painful. Ireland must finally deal with and it appears the collective will of the public demands it.

Obviously, dead babies lying in unmarked graves is nothing new in Ireland. Again, we’ve talked about this before, with the Magdalene cause, and certainly Toni Maguire’s (Queen’s University, Belfast) excellent work in uncovering and excavating the mass grave sites of Cillini (unbaptised babies) has been well known for some years. So what tipped it this time? Was it the horror of the phrase “septic tank” as the purported tomb for these infants just the final straw? Whatever the cause, we are grateful the world is finally seeing what we’ve known for many, many years. #800 babies is now catching fire in the way #200girls did a month ago.

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Sean Ross Abbey, Tipperary, 1950’s

Here are some of the gruesome statistics we’ve collated over the years, which bolster what the world has recently learned about Tuam, Galway:

In 1943, the birth and death rates for the three Sacred Heart homes were as follows*. This year is particularly poignant, because it is also the year former Chief Medical Office for Ireland, Dr. James Deeney, undertook an investigation of the Bessboro, Cork Sacred Heart home and discovered an epidemic of staph infection among the infants, witnessing nappies filled with infected diarrhea, babies with sores and raging fevers, etc.

Sean Ross Abbey births: 146
Deaths: 45
Mortality rate: 31%

Castlepollard, Westmeath births: 77
Deaths: 6
Mortality rate: 8%

Bessborough, Cork births: 106
Deaths: 60
Mortality rate: 57%

*Initial, early research is based upon available online (Mormon-held) records, and may not include some records, quarters or is otherwise missing data. Further in-depth research is ongoing to pull all actual death certificates and available archival records. Initial inspection of some death certificates indicates marasmus (severe/acute malnutrition) was a leading cause of death among these infants.

Two years later, in 1945, the Bessborough, Cork home was shut down for a year as a result of Dr. Deeny’s investigation. and care and treatment of infants and mothers began to slightly improve. But overall, marked improvements weren’t to be seen until the arrival of Cork-born midwife, June Goulding (author of A Light in the Window) in 1950-51. It is remarkable that in 1951, only one infant and one mother perished under June’s care. The picture of neglect and ill-treatment at the hands of the religious at these institutions begins to become quite clear when juxtaposed against these statistics.

The call is to now demand the government put in place a full, independent inquiry. This means it cannot be a case of the government investigating the government (and let’s face it, they’re even more complicit now than in the case of the Magdalenes – the State has always paid capitation grants to mother-baby homes, the equivalent of an industrial wage, for each mother and child). That would be like allowing the burglar who cleaned out your house to investigate the crime. It needs to be led by a completely independent chair/body. I would suggest someone on the order of a Felice Gaer, UNCAT; or perhaps Mary Laffoy, Ireland Chief Justice who valiantly did try to have our issues covered during the 1999-2003 Child Abuse Commission Investigation; UNICEF, Amnesty – other human rights groups would also be possible choices. But absolutely not the Irish government. That will get us nothing more than a retread of the Martin McAleese-led Magdalene “independent” investigation, and his subsequent white-washed report. The UN CAT stated that was not unacceptable, and we couldn’t agree more. The memorials and stones and gardens and what have you can come later…no memorials before true justice.

taken_adoptionLet’s rip it all up. It’s long past time it be dealt with. And let’s remember that it’s not just about 800 dead babies in Tuam, Galway, or the thousands more we’ve commemorated and honour in Dublin, Roscrea, Cork and elsewhere. But it’s also about the living – some 60,000 Irish-born adults who are still considered second-class citizens by virtue of our birth, and denied access to even the most basic information about ourselves.

For more information or to join relevant Facebook groups campaigning for justice:

Adoption Rights Alliance (website)
The Philomena Project (website)
The Philomena Project (Facebook group, open to all supporters)
Banished Babies (open to all supporters, those trafficked to the US and the wider adoption community)
JFM Research (website)
Justice for Magdalenes (Facebook group, open to all supporters)

Because personal and private information is shared, some of these Facebook groups and pages are only open to only those who are adopted, mothers/fathers of loss or those who have a family connection:

Adoption Rights Alliance
Sean Ross Abbey
Bessboro
Castlepollard
St. Patrick’s Guild
St. Patrick’s Navan Road
Justice for the Tuam Babies

The Magdalen Laundries: Ireland’s Shameful Past

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When the 133 graves at High Park were discovered, a huge cry went up among Irish society. What would become of these sad women and their legacy? Many of the graves were unmarked. With no family to claim or name them, so many women died within the system itself, actually cared for in their last days by their own sisters in shame, but with no other family member to step forward and bury them decently. And so the good Sisters of Charity did what they could, quietly interring these 133 souls over a period spanning nearly 100 years.

As public outrage grew, a decision was made to reinter the bodies in nearby Glasnevin Cemetery. Some were identified in the process and claimed by younger generations of whatever family they had left. Slight memorials exist at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin and in St Stephen’s Green, where a simple, sad bench and plaque sit.

Society — still outraged at the sad history of these women — continued to stew over this state of affairs in the media, in books, and in plays. Recent allegations of abuse at the Goldenbridge orphanage in Dublin as well as newly-discovered archives of some 2,000 Irish children exported to the US and elsewhere had already added to the fury and questions began to fly. What kind of so-called moral, decent society could so shun and penalize its women?

Today we hear horrifying stories of ritualistic genital mutilation in some sectors of Muslim society; we hear of the thousands of Chinese infant girls left to languish and die at birth because they were not born male and exceeded the one-child-per-family rule in effect in China. We hear of Romanian orphans, illegal Brazilian adoption schemes, Chile’s horrifying baby-brokering history — each and every case a horrible example of man’s inhumanity to mankind, or in this case, womankind.

But in a relatively civilized European country? It seems unfathomable. But there it is — and the Catholic Church staunchly defending its actions, asking us to place it within the ‘context of the times.’ This is just the way it was done back then and besides, it was society who judged and sentenced these women, not the church, they say.

Well, there are two vital flaws in their theories:

If we accept their ‘place it in the context of the times’ excuse, then what next? Do we excuse Nazi genocide of Jewish and other people because it was ‘just the way things were done then’? Do we next excuse the Inquisition by placing it in a ‘time context’ as well?

And as for placing the blame on society — it is and was well-known that Irish society has been Church-driven since at least the 6th century AD, when Ireland’s native Brehon law was completely eradicated and replaced with Roman/Canon law. Interestingly, under ancient Brehon law, if a man impregnated a woman he was not bound to by marriage, regardless of her societal station, mental status, etc., he was required to care for her and the resulting child. The child was then accorded the same rights and privileges of inheritance and ascendancy as a child born inside the bonds of marriage.

How far Ireland has come. While it has always been and is still a highly matriarchal society, Ireland’s laws and social mores have for hundreds of years been not only Church-driven, but male-dominated. If the Church says birth outside marriage is wrong, then society would simply march in step and agree, not the other way ’round. Which throws a fly in the ointment of Mother Church’s other infamous excuse.

And what of the men who impregnated women in this modern Ireland? I have been asked so often what role Irish birthfathers play. The answer: none. These randy old goats simply went their merry way, or if they wanted to be involved, were forbidden by church and family. Many went on as if nothing had ever happened, still holding their head high, with no recriminations on the part of church or society. Perhaps a muffled, “Best be careful Paddy, boyo, next time.” on the part of a slyly winking father, would have been the only admonition. More likely, the lad’s evidence of virility would have been celebrated over a pint in the nearest pub, amid much laughter and derision over the poor girl’s plight.

The last wave of this legacy, women like my birthmother who bore the final vestiges of Catholic guilt and shame by bearing children out of wedlock, still hide shamefully in the shadows. Much like many of us sitting here today, they silently bore their stigma, doing as they were told to get on with their lives, forget the past, marry and never tell a soul your dreadful secret. Until the mid-1970’s, the birthmothers, the ‘penitents’, the Magdalens of Ireland, bore an unimaginable cross of ill-treatment, ritualistic abuse and, most cruelly — were often required to stay with their children until the time came for them to be adopted into new homes: some in Ireland, many far away in America. My birthmother and many of the women who entered homes like the Sacred Heart Convent in Cork, Castlepollard in Westmeath, St. Patrick’s in Dublin, and Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary, even breastfed us and cared for us — often up till age two or older. They were then cruelly parted from us, often under questionable circumstances. Many were told the relinquishment was a fostering arrangement, that they could reclaim their child if they proved themselves ‘decent’ women and came back with marriage certificates in hand. I know of one woman who did just that, only to learn her daughter had already gone to America. She was given a photo of her daughter’s first Christmas with her new American family. I cannot even begin to fathom that sort of heartbreak, even having relinquished my own daughter through the Catholic Church in Philadelphia in 1978.

Even today, the Irish birthmothers I have come into contact with are extremely skittish, scared, and unwilling or unable to come forward with their secret. It’s as if some invisible sword of Damascus hangs over their heads, ready at any moment to strike them the minute they publicly acknowledge their relinquished children. I have shared the success empowerment has brought to many of us here in the US with these women. Successes like the march on Washington, DC, the full-page ad we sponsored in the Oregonian prior to Measure 58’s passing. Still, the stigma hangs so heavy, they have only taken feeble, tentative steps towards making their voices heard to the Irish government and the Catholic church.

Much remains to be done. And for my part, I have made it my goal to continue educating people on the story of the Magdalens. Their voices have been silenced; mine has not. I will continue to speak out so that these women will be remembered.

The Little NGO That Could

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I just could not be more proud of the little NGO, Justice for Magdalenes, I co-founded back in 2003 with two other colleagues, no funding (a €26 account balance as we speak) and with less than a David-sized slingshot against a Goliath made of the Irish State and the Catholic Church. But on Sunday, June 5, the United Nations made that slingshot and ammunition bigger. Tons of international press followed. A tepid statement of “cooperation” was released by CORI (the Conference of Religious in Ireland, representing the four religious orders who operated Magdalene Laundries)…holy rhetoric, Batman! But’s it a start. And it proves justice is possible for the most marginalised of Irish society. The press release we issued June 6 says it all:
The UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) issued its “Concluding Observations” following the first examination of the Irish State under the UN Convention Against Torture. The Committee reiterated its calls for an independent investigation into the Magdalene Laundries abuse and redress for the women who suffered.

It also recommended that the State “prosecute and punish the perpetrators with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the offences committed.” Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), the survivor advocacy group, is now calling on the Irish State to act immediately on foot of UNCAT’s recommendations and issue a formal apology to all survivors of the Magdalene Laundries and immediately establish a statutory inquiry into these abuses.

JFM’s submission to UNCAT, written by Maeve O’Rourke (Harvard Law School 2010 Global Human Rights Fellow), and which includes testimonies from four women who spent time in the Laundries, highlights the continuing degrading treatment that survivors are suffering today because of the government’s ongoing failure to apologise, investigate and compensate for the abuse. At the examination in Geneva on 24th May 2011, acting UNCAT Chairperson Felice Gaer, questioned the government’s statement that “the vast majority of women who went to these institutions went there voluntarily, or if they were minors, with the consent of their parents or guardians”.

She said, “We had testimony about locked doors and people being captured by the police and returned to the institutions – so there’s State involvement as well.” She added, “There were physical barriers and there seems to have been an intent to confine people” and she stated “I think ‘voluntary’ means that one makes a choice; I think that ‘voluntary’ means that one is informed; I think that ‘voluntary’ means that one is then free to leave. I think it means that there is nothing coercive in this context.” She asked, “Can you identify any examples of efforts by State authorities to inspect or regulate these facilities? Were they exempt from standards? And can you tell us what means were taken to ensure that there were no acts or omissions that amount to torture”?

James Smith, Associate Professor at Boston College and a member of JFM’s Advisory Committee, said, “Today’s UN recommendation undermines the government’s argument that this abuse happened ‘a considerable time ago in private institutions’. It rebuts the State’s assertion that the ‘vast majority’ of women entered the Laundries ‘voluntarily’. And, it underscores that the State’s own definition of torture includes the crime of omission with respect to ensuring due diligence to prevent torture. The State failed the women and young girls in the Laundries, and now the UN is saying not only that Ireland can, but that it must, make right its own history in this regard.”

Maeve O’Rourke, who presented JFM’s submission to the Committee, said: ”The UN torture committee has added its voice to the Irish Human Rights Commission’s to remind the Irish government that the women who spent time in Magdalene Laundries have human rights which demand respect today. Having suffered torture or ill-treatment, in which the state directly participated and which it knowingly failed to prevent, the women have the ongoing right to an investigation, an apology, redress and treatment with dignity. I am hopeful that, before it is too late, the government will honour its obligations to these women who suffered such injustice in the past.”

JFM Co-ordinating Committee Director Mari Steed said “Magdalene laundry survivors currently receive no pension reflecting the years they worked for no wages. Many of the women suffer long term physical effects from years of hard labour in the Laundries. All of the women speak of the psychological trauma of their experiences in the Laundries, in many cases the trauma of arriving in a laundry as young girls has stayed with them throughout their lives. We call on the Minister for Justice to implement a scheme in line with the ‘Restorative Justice and Reparations Scheme’ submitted to Mr. Shatter in March by JFM. UNCAT committee member Nora Sveaass commended JFM for this scheme, saying that the State should look at it more closely.”

Our Lady of Nothing at All (Part II)

 

9Honora was the youngest daughter in a family of five, from a small village in Wexford not far from the port of Rosslare.  While her father and several brothers mostly worked quarrying rock, her own mother’s people were mostly seafarers.  Hardly prosperous, they at least managed a steady living and had survived the worst of An Ghorta Mor.  Honora was the pet of the family, an exquisite dark-haired beauty who learned early on how to wrap a man around her finger, starting with her besotted father.  By the time she was 16, in 1926, she had become pregnant by a local farmer’s son.  With Honora’s own charm, coupled with her father’s desire to do anything to keep his precious Honora from harm as well as his own local influence, they managed to keep the scandal quiet.  The resulting baby boy, John, was quickly hustled off to live with a pair of uncles in the next village over, and Honora resumed her normal life.  Disaster struck again three years later, when Honora managed to bewitch yet another local lad and bore him a daughter.

 

 

 

 

 

This time Honora’s aggrieved father shuttled her off to a small set of rooms shared by a bachelor and his sister in yet another neighboring village, but told her the child was now her own responsibility.  Honora’s mother by this point had lapsed into a near catatonic state over this flagrant family shame.  She would spend most days rocking by the fire, only ever asking if any of her three boys were home from work yet. Honora’s father did most of the cooking and cleaning, looking after his now witless wife as best he could.  What little spare time he had, he would visit Honora and the baby girl, Ellie, or go by and pick up baby John for a brief visit with his mammy.

 

 

 

 

 

On one such visit, not quite a year after Ellie’s birth, Honora’s father entered the small house she shared to find her retching into a basin.

 

 

 

 

 

—Honora, girl, what’s wrong with you?

 

 

 

 

 

Ellie was squalling on a cot in the corner, and as Honora’s father went to pick her up for a cuddle (he could resist his grandchildren no more than he could resist Honora, bastards though they may be), Honora wiped her ashen face and straightened.

—It’s happened again, Da.

—What’s happened again, lass?

—A fella’s been at me

—What?!

—Oh yes, that fine fella you begged me to take rooms with, Nick…well, he’s not such a fine fella is he?

—Ah jaysus, the fecker’s gone and knocked you up?

—Yes, Da…I swear I did nothing to encourage him, honest

—I believe you Nora, I do.  Men can’t help but be dazzled by you, sweet. I know.  But honestly, what are we to do now?

He sighed heavily and sat with resignation on a stool, scratching his balding head.  He knew in his heart his own budget, never mind Honora’s (which was only supplemented by the laundry she took in for neighbours) would never stand another babby.

—Nora, you know you’ll have to give this up…the county home will find the babby a good family.

—They won’t, Da!

Honora let out an anguished cry, but just as quickly clicked her own mouth shut, realising with an awful finality that she could not support another child.

And so, when this third baby was born, Martin, he was quickly christened and given over to the county home in Enniscorthy.  For agonising months, Honora and her father would make the long drive to the county home and visit with little Martin.  Each time they were assured that the paperwork was in process to find him a fine family. Finally, after a full year of such visits, Honora was told that a family was found and that she shouldn’t be bothered to visit Martin anymore — it would only upset and confuse him, trying to settle in with a new family.

Honora accepted her and Martin’s fate as best she could and went back to the sad house she shared (uncomfortably now) with the father of the child and his sister, who couldn’t resist making snarky remarks and darting nasty looks at Honora behind her back.  Her father promised to write to Honora’s older sister Anne, who was now married and living in Manchester, England, and see if Honora couldn’t come live with them until she could find suitable employment and (fingers crossed) a suitable spouse.  Arrangements were made and funds collected to send Honora for a short visit with Anne, hoping to lift her spirits and let her glimpse the joys of a stable marriage and family life.  The joys Honora glimpsed while in Manchester were evidently not quite what her father had envisioned.  She came back pregnant for the fourth time, this one resulting from a rapturous fling with a handsome, dark friend of her sister Anne’s husband Michael.

Her father was now convinced Honora was soft in the head, bewitching ways notwithstanding.  He could not believe a girl could be so daft as to not realise what had gotten her this way four times!  Enough was enough.  He sat her down in front of the fire and told her in no uncertain terms that this child was straight off to the county home, and no fond visits for a year.  Afterward, she would return to Manchester, to Anne and Michael (who would be under strict orders to keep her away from men, unless it was a proper, supervised courtship) and would not be bid welcome in Wexford again unless there was a ring on her finger and a proper husband in tow.

Honora was miserable…she loved her babies, including this unborn one. She loved the sex she had had with the men who’d produced these children, no matter what the Church and the neighbours said.  It was all just down to bad timing.  She’d believed her father could make everything work, but even she came to realise that the man was carrying far too much on his shoulders.  So when this last little babby girl was born, christened Philomena, Honora resignedly made the journey again to the county home for what she believed was the last time.

She had little Ellie and would occasionally see John, and now she’d be off to Manchester.  She tried to push the loss of Philomena and Martin, and her precious visits with John, out of her mind as she prepared for the journey to her sister’s.

But fate was not done with Honora yet.  Shortly before Christmastime, four-year old Ellie came down with a mysterious fever and blinding headache.  Nothing could console or aid her.  For two days Honora and her equally distraught father administered soup, water or anything they could to get the fever down.  But Ellie had lapsed into unconsciousness and they knew their only hope was to get her to the county home, which was the nearest place affording any class of medical service.

A somber resident paediatrician informed them that Ellie was suffering from meningitism.  Ellie’s vital signs languished to nothing overnight, despite fluids and what treatment was offered.  Four days after her illness began, Honora, her three older brothers, father and catatonic mother buried the little girl in the local cemetery.  Honora’s bitter tears flowed over Ellie’s small gravesite with the cold, December rain.  Something inside her hardened then, but made her resolved to always watch over her children, wherever they may be.

Three months later, Honora carried her grief and the secret of her children on the boat to Manchester.  She arrived at Anne’s doorstep weary and still somewhat in shock.  She had changed from the raven-haired, rose-cheeked, laughing beauty Anne had known as a girl.  Now a quiet, somber young woman stood before her.  Anne immediately folded her into her arms and set about restoring Honora into a marriageable catch.

Over the course of the next two years, Anne’s transformation began to work its magic.  Although Honora remained a quiet and sober woman, the roses did come back to her cheeks and evidently provided enough of a lure to attract a straight-laced railway worker she was introduced to at the local Irish club.  Anne made sure that Honora understand this was a fine man: God-fearing, a temperance Pioneer for many years, and exceedingly modest in his dealings with women.  Under no circumstances could Honora share any of her past — nothing about her children, living, dead or missing — to this man Tom, or he’d have nothing to do with her.

Tom seemed enthralled with Honora’s quiet way, taking it for modesty as opposed to some deep, abiding sorrow.  Within three months, he had offered her marriage and Honora’s entire family rejoiced.

Tom and Honora settled outside London, where work was more plentiful, especially for experienced Irish railroad workers, now stepping into the English jobs left vacant by World War II.  But that itself concerned Tom; they had three young children by the start of the war and he wanted his wife and children out of harm’s way.  So they were sent off to his father in Kerry, to a one-horse town where life seemed at a standstill.  Honora hated it, and disliked Tom’s taciturn father, who was forever ordering her around like some servant.  Her only relief was going into town to shop, where every male head would turn her way.  This barren outpost from the 18th century had never seen a woman the likes of Honora.  With her long dark hair flowing behind her and her imperial posture and direct gaze, she commanded men to their windows in passing.  But Honora was now a married matron and had no time for these staring ohmaudans.  She had another more important mission.

On occasion, Honora was able to convince Old Tom, her father-in-law, that she needed to go to Wexford to see her own family, usually because ‘someone was sick’.  She’d leave her three toddlers in Old Tom’s care (the foul old bastard was well able to look after them, and besides, that’s what a grandfather was for now and again) and hop the train.

Her first visit was to Wexford, where her oldest son John, now nearly 20, met her at the railway station.  She passionately embraced him, but was not surprised when his own embrace seemed a bit confused and stand-offish.  Poor lad hadn’t seen her in so many years, he’d probably forgotten she was his mother.  After a quick visit with her father, brothers and uncles (her mother had passed as quietly as she lived, in her own world, some five years ago — Honora and Anne had not attended the funeral), Honora made her way to the county home, now called St John’s.  Her mission was to try and learn where Martin and Philomena went and perhaps check in on them.  She was surprisingly able to follow their whereabouts, but no thanks to the staff at the home.  Her source was local gossip and it told her that contrary to what the county home had promised, Martin had ended up an ‘orphan’ in a local industrial school and Philomena was being raised by nuns at a girls’ convent school.

Honora arranged for further ‘day-trips’ from Old Tom’s place in Kerry and was able to slip by train to Kilkenny and Cork, to see Martin and Philomena.  Martin was a sad little fellow who seemed to want nothing to do with Honora, but the visits at least helped Honora to hold onto her sanity.  Philomena warmed more toward her, curling her small hand inside Honora’s as they sat in the children’s nursery together and tried to make conversation.  Honora did her best to explain her situation to both children, but they were far too young to grasp it and all she could do was try to cuddle them both and assure them she loved them.

The return trips to Kerry left Honora unsettled and empty.  She could never tell her Tom about these children, and yet she felt compelled to remain part of their lives, somehow. Her only hope was that she somehow wasn’t doing the children more harm than good with her sporadic visits and subjecting them to a life among strangers, in foster care and industrial schools.

Twenty-five years passed, bringing Honora another four children with Tom and a settled life in the London suburbs.  And although she occasionally saw her eldest son John, who was now married with his own son and living nextdoor to her sister Anne in Manchester, she had still not acknowledged her four Irish-born children to Tom and the younger children.  And on visits with her sister Anne or the requisite funerals and weddings where John was present, she was forced to pass him off as a “cousin” to her husband and children.  The pain and confusion that registered in John’s eyes on these occasions broke her heart.

She had also not set foot back in Ireland since the War years, and so could only follow Philomena and Martin’s progress through sporadic letters from her father, who didn’t know much about them himself.

One day a letter arrived, not from her father, but from one of her aging uncles.  Honora’s father had died, they said, peacefully in his sleep. She knew she would have to go back for this funeral.  So it was arranged that Honora would travel with her sister Anne.  She was shocked at what a small, sad place her family village in Wexford had become.  She and Anne tearfully buried their beloved father and Honora felt as if she was burying her last link to Ireland with him.  Except for the children — still out there, somewhere.  At the small gathering held in her bachelor Uncle George’s home, Honora struck up a conversation with a cousin, Biddy, who seemed to be in the know on everything.  Biddy also knew about John, Martin and Philomena and tactlessly asked Honora if she’d been in touch with them.  Honora sadly admitted she had not seen Philomena and Martin in over twenty years, and John only occasionally.  She was unprepared for the shock, then, when Biddy told her Philomena was still with the nuns, now in Waterford, doing sewing for them.  Honora had thought pretty Philomena would be lucky, and some nice family might’ve taken her in by now…or she’d by now be successfully married. Without hesitation, she hastily re-arranged her trip back to England, telling Anne to let Tom know she would be spending a few extra days ‘straightening out her father’s affairs’.

She wasted no time in traveling to St. Dominick’s, demanding to see her daughter when she arrived.  The nuns led her to an ornate parlor and she nervously sat waiting for Philomena, clutching her purse.  The spectre that soon appeared before her was shocking.  Now a grown woman, Philomena was still small, thin and had horrendous dark circles under her eyes.  The lively, sweet child Honora remembered had turned into a docile, resigned woman.  She didn’t know where to begin, so just stood up and hugged Philomena to her.  She could feel the bones in the girl’s back and was horrified.

— Oh my Phil, my poor, sweet Phil!  What have they done to you?

Philomena looked up into her mother’s eyes, a woman she barely knew, and felt nothing.  No sadness, no remorse, no anger.  Just a giant void of feeling.  However, that soon turned to relief when Honora announced her intentions to get Phil out of there.

They packed Phil’s meager belongings together and Phil noted the small wad of bank notes that passed between her mother’s hand and the sister who ran St. Dominick’s.  Honora hired a cab to take them down to Cork City, and soon they were settled in a small restaurant on Patrick Street, sipping tea and eating sandwiches.

—I know I haven’t been much of a mother to you — Honora hesitatingly began.

—Mum, it’s all past.  I understand.  John and Uncle George would send me letters and they told me about your husband and children.  I’ve been fine, really.

Honora eyed Phil suspiciously.  Her appearance told her otherwise, but for now, she was just glad to see and touch Philomena once again.

—Look, because of Tom, I still can’t be much of a mother to you, but I can do something.  Tom has a sister who is head Matron at a hospital in Dublin.  I’m sure we could find you a suitable job there.  Better than working for the nuns.  Did they even pay you for the work you did?

—No, mum.  None of us were paid.  We got our keep and that was it.

—Right.  Then that’s it…you’ll slave no more for the likes of them.

The two women finished their lunch in awkward silence, not knowing what else to say between complete strangers who hadn’t seen each other in twenty-five years.  Honora paid for lunch and called for a cab to take them to the train station.  Soon they were on their way to Dublin, and a whole new life for Phil.

Honora located them a small, reasonable bed and breakfast in the city and rang to make an appointment with Tom’s sister, the head Matron at Our Lady’s Hospital.  She was careful with her words, introducing Phil by phone as a “cousin” from Wexford, with solid training from the nuns. Tom’s sister happily agreed to meet them, and soon after their proper introduction, Philomena was welcomed to the small army of ward staff employed at the hospital.

Satisfied that at least Phil was rescued from a life of slavery to the nuns, Honora said yet one more sad good-bye to her daughter, as they stood in the staff dormitory.  Honora’s eyes filled with tears as she hugged Phil tightly to her.

—I wish things didn’t have to be this way.  I wish I had you near me every day.

—Don’t worry, mum.  I’ll be fine.  I’m a grown woman now.  And thank you for getting me out of St. Dominick’s.  I know I’ll love this job.  I’ll write as soon as I’m settled.  And don’t worry — I’ll write as your ‘grateful cousin’.

—Thank you for understanding, Phil.  I love you so.

And with that Honora turned and exited the dormitory.  Phil would not see her again until Honora’s death, some twenty years later.

Part I, Our Lady of Nothing at All

Our Lady of Nothing at All (Part 1)

img_02371277213625The first sensation Maura became aware of was a sort of sloshing, slurping sound. Other sensations seemed to indicate she herself was actually a part of this sound, like the tugging and pressure she felt on her tiny body. There was a sudden whack of something — air — assailing her nostrils, now open and no longer filled with fluid. The new air carried a strong Scent to Maura’s brain, something remembered, known. It gradually became identifiable as the Scent belonging to the Gentle Voice, the warm cavern that had held Maura for some time now. It was much stronger now, though. She could almost taste the scent on her rosebud lips and became excited to take in more of it. But that meant more of the sloshing and slurping and the tugging and pulling.

To take itself off the uncomfortable feeling of tugging and pulling, Maura’s mind reviewed her time spent in this warm world. She could hear the Scent singing to her, lulling her with soothing sounds like water running over smooth stones. The Scent was always singing to her, although sometimes Maura would catch sounds in between that seemed far more sad and troubled. The Scent would shudder slightly and Maura would feel a gentle pressure, a clasping of some kind, on her little sphere and body. And Maura would be aware that she, too, felt sad and unhappy. But the clasping part made her want to see more of the Scent.

At last, she made a decision to go with it and moved closer toward the strong scent on the new air, and with a final slurp, she entered this new world. What met her senses was a full-on assault. Loud noises, things clanging, voices shouting, and light — blinding light. Mixed in with the Scent she knew were other smells; harsh, acrid ones she couldn’t identify as belonging to the world she knew. It took some moments as her over-stimulated nervous system quieted and she was able to adjust herself to the new surroundings.

Her tiny nose and ears and body were picking up strong signals from everywhere, but her eyes, the weakest of her senses, couldn’t seem to adjust. Everything was fuzzy, distorted and very, very frightening. It was all mostly bright light, really, with odd, dark shapes moving in and out.

And worst of all, she couldn’t find the Scent — it was out there, but not as close now, she could tell. Suddenly, it was replaced by another Scent, not one she knew, and her whole body convulsed in response to it. The new Scent clasped her tightly (that part Maura liked), but just as quickly unclasped her and laid her on something cold. More sounds followed.

—She’s five pounds and fifteen ounces, what a mite!

—And cute as a button.

—Is the mother okay?

—Sure, but she’s taken it on the chin, poor dote. She’s exhausted.

—Right. Fingers and toes accounted for, check. Eyes responding and reflexes fine, check. Nice head o’hair. I’ll wager mammy was belchin’ and burnin’ up the oul’ gullet on this one!

The sisters gave Maura a thorough cleaning, then wrapped her in a soft blanket and placed her on a small, metal cot. For the next three hours, she felt very disconnected from her Scent and familiar sounds and world. She was very frightened.

She tried to emulate the sound of her Scent singing to her, thinking perhaps she could find the Scent that way. But what came out was more of a screeching, and it startled even herself.

Eventually, a sister came in and scooped Maura up. She was taken down a long corridor of bright lights, more acrid smells and jangly sounds. The sister opened a door to a room where three young women lay in identical beds. Maura was taken to the furthest bed, next to a window, where a small, dark-haired woman lay.

—Up now, Phil…here’s your darlin’ babby. Isn’t she lovely?

Philomena, the dark-haired girl in the bed, sat up painfully, minding the new row of stitches in her belly, and eagerly held her arms out to the sister. She settled Maura into them, holding her close to her breasts, and immediately began half-singing, half-cooing to her. Maura instantly opened her eyes and became acutely aware of comfort. The Scent was back! And closer than ever! She settled into her mother’s arms contentedly and closed her eyes, allowing the exhaustion of this startling, new world to take over. Soon all was dark and warm again.

Philomena was a 27-year old new mother, lying in a cot in a hospital in Cork, Ireland on the 8th of April, 1960. Until last night, she had been living for the past two months at a mother-baby home on the outskirts of Cork City along with twenty other young women. All of them were pregnant and not married to the fathers of their children. There were also the appalling whispers of fathers and brothers, cousins, and even a priest being responsible for some of these pregnancies. And that was the way it was in Ireland . If you made the fearful mistake of becoming pregnant outside of wedlock, no matter the circumstances, you did your time at one of these god-forsaken Gulags run by fearsome nuns who made you feel right shite every waking day.

But where else would Phil have gone? She had no family herself to speak of. Some dim memories would flit across her mind of the mother who would visit her on odd occasions, as she shuttled from one foster family to another, and then finally on to the nuns at age 15 to work for her keep. That was it. No real brother-memories or sister-memories — no sense of who her own father was. Just the constant rootlessness and dependency on others.

So she’d had no choice but to turn to the nuns when she discovered she was pregnant with Robert’s baby.

Philomena had been working in Dublin (her first, real on-her-own-job) as a domestic ward aide in a large hospital when she met Robert. She liked the work and was good at keeping her wards spotless, as well as giving the patients the benefit of her sympathetic and kind nature. Many of the sisters there encouraged her to pursue nursing, and Phil kept that in the back of her mind as her own private dream.

She also liked the other girls she worked with and struck up easy friendships with many of them. All the ward aides roomed together in a section at the back of the hospital for staff. It was certainly no worse than anything the nuns or foster families had offered her as hospice over the years, and it was enhanced by the fact that the girls could pretty much come and go as they pleased within curfew.

So Phil and many of the other young women she worked with would pretty themselves up on Friday nights and rush off to the dances at the old Star in Dublin. They were all meeting up with fellas they were dating, or with new fellas they hoped to meet at the dances. It was at one such fateful dance that Phil was introduced to Robert by her friend, Eileen.

—Hey, Phil, wouldja have a look at that fella over there with my Joe? Is that not dreamy or what?

Philomena glanced over in the direction Eileen indicated and took in a tall, dark-haired man wearing a better-than-average suit. She couldn’t see his face clearly as her vision wasn’t the best, and she hadn’t yet saved enough for new glasses (nor would she necessarily choose to wear them when she went to the Star, remembering the line Marilyn Monroe used in that American film How to Marry a Millionaire: “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses”). Plus the lighting in the dance hall was wretched. But going by Eileen’s genuine enthusiasm, Phil could tell Eileen thought she’d snared quite the catch for her.

—Is he not gorgeous? What, are ya an eejit? Are ye lookin where I’m pointin’?

—Sure, sure…I see him. He looks pretty good from here. Who is he?

—A friend of my Joe’s. Joe wants me to set you up with him, Phil. He’s brilliant…comes from good family, Joe says, and has a good, steady job.

—What’s he do, then?

—Joe says he works up Finglas way for a stained glass company — y’know, does all them fancy church windows and the like.

—Hmmm

—Is that all ye can say?! Shush now, here they come over…

Eileen and Joe awkwardly made introductions, while Philomena and Robert blushed furiously at one another. Finally, he offered to get her a lemonade and gently guided her by her elbow away from her friends. They wound up in a dark corner of the hall, where the music wasn’t quite so loud and there was no danger of reeling couples dancing into and over them.

—So, howyeh, Phil? Where are ye from? Not from here, I can tell that.

Philomena blushed furiously, always conscious of her somewhat questionable background. But she could tell from the impish grin on Robert’s face that his question was not intended to be judgmental; he was just breaking the ice.

—Em, no. I’m from Wexford way.

The impish grin widened. Robert handed her a lemonade and reached inside his own pocket for a small flask.

—Care for a bit extra in yours?

Phil nervously eyed the flask and realised that Robert had brought a bit stronger concoction to reinforce his bland ade. She shook her head no.

—Cheers, but I’d rather not.

—Well then [he poured a generous measure in his own glass], here’s lookin’ at you, kid!

The man was definitely gorgeous in Phil’s estimation, now that she could see him closer, but she could plainly tell this was a fella who liked to party. Possibly too much. He already seemed a bit well-lubricated. Not unsteady or sloppy, mind you, but clearly a few spiked lemonades down.

Robert finished his drink and asked Phil if she’d like to dance. As they glided back onto the noisy floor, the showband whomping away like mad, she was surprised at what a deft dancer he was. He smoothly whirled her around the floor, never losing his footing or stomping her toes as so many other fellas did.

A few sets later, Phil and Robert, now sweaty and laughing, rejoined Eileen and her Joe. It was nearly closing time, but both couples were not quite ready to call it a night. As Joe had a small flat of his own, he invited everyone round to his place and Phil nervously accepted the invitation with Robert’s enthusiastic encouragement.

As they stepped out of the Star, they were met with a warmish June night and the humid smells coming off the Liffey. Arms linked, the two couples laughingly made their way toward the river, crossing north toward Joe’s ramshackle neighbourhood, singing as they went. Robert’s fine baritone merged nicely with Phil’s own strong soprano, and she shyly smiled up at him as their voices bounced off the river and cobblestones. From somewhere off to their left came a loudly shouted WOULD YOU EVER SHUT THE FUCK UP? All four laughed and wound the song down to a low chorus.

They arrived at Joe’s and climbed the two flights up to his darkened flat. Joe went about flicking on lights and opened the one window in the place. His upper body disappeared out the window and returned with a quartet of bottled stout. Phil accepted a bottle as she was more than thirsty again from the walk and quite sure Joe had nothing of a non-alcoholic variety there.

A radio was switched on and Joe and Eileen began a slow dance, nuzzling and kissing one another as they circled the room, oblivious to Robert and Phil. Robert’s left eyebrow shot up and he motioned Phil to a dilapidated sofa, which served as the only furniture in the room besides two wooden chairs and small table. She sat down next to him and he immediately launched an arm around her. Phil hadn’t much experience with men, and what little she did have was not of a positive quality. During a brief stay working with a farm family when she was 14, Phil was accosted in her room one night as she slept by the foul, sweaty patriarch. Instinctively, she lashed out with a solid foot to his groin and effectively rolled him off her before further harm could be done. The sight of the doughy farmer squealing down the corridor, his startled, now wide-awake wife three steps behind him and shouting questions was nearly worth the cost of Phil’s job. The farmer’s wife stared Philomena down the next day at breakfast, flinty-eyed and convinced that Phil had seduced her lout of a husband. So that was that — out she went and lucky, according to the farmer’s wife, that the gards weren’t called.

Fearful of a future of jobs like this, where’d she be at the mercy of some sex-craved father or husband, she turned to the nuns in Cork for help, where she’d spent most of her limited schooling. Their response was to send her to an institution known as St. Dominick’s up in Waterford, notorious for taking in ‘wayward women’ to do commercial laundry and sewing, often never to see the outside world again. But Phil felt her choices were limited, and besides, the nuns told her because of her fine hand with the needle, she’d be doing fancy sewing instead of the hard, leg-killing laundry work. Still, she’d spent ten years in that dreadful place. Ten years of being taunted by fellow inmates for her somewhat ‘elevated’ status as a seamstress, taunted by the nuns for minor infractions, and taunted by the public every time the girls were all trotted out for May processions or outdoor Masses. It was soul-sucking and Phil feared her decision may have been ill-informed: she was becoming a shapeless, nameless thing like the rest of the inmates and the nuns began to treat her in kind. What little money she’d saved before coming to St. Dominick’s had been given over to the nuns for her ‘keep’. Phil harboured no illusions about the money the nuns made off her stunning, intricately embroidered Irish linen tablecloths. She knew she’d never see a penny of it.

On the brink of becoming a mindless automaton, one day Phil was pulled from the sewing room and told a visitor was there to see her. When she was ushered into the nuns’ ‘special visitor’ parlor, she was confronted by a somewhat wild-looking woman of middle age, her obviously long, thick hair swept up into a whorl with pins. Dark and gray clashed in this whorl and Phil found she couldn’t take her eyes off it. She finally met the face under the hair with her gaze and realised she was staring at her own mother, Honora.

When ‘Justice for All’ becomes justice for…some

Author’s disclaimer: the comments made here are my personal comments and do not reflect the opinions of any other group or organisation. If you have the inane notion to take “legal action,” please note that you must take it with me — Mari Steed: personal assets=$0; self-respect and dignity=priceless. And for those who truly don’t have a clue, anything with an ellipse or quotation marks is just that — a quotation. In other words, not something I said, but a remark someone else said that I’m quoting. Clear?

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For anyone who knows me, my history with adoption, Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries, you know that my mantra has always been if you support these issues as I do, then I’m with you, 100%. My personal history: my mother spent ten years in the Magdalene Laundry in Cork, and then suffered the further indignity of being shuttled through three different Irish mother-baby homes, finally giving birth to me at the mother-baby home at Bessboro’, Cork. I am also the reunited mother to a daughter relinquished under Pennsylvania’s sealed records system in 1978.

A bit more background: I’ve worked with an advocacy group called Justice for Magdalenes for going on the last ten years. Our primary goals are (i) to bring about an official apology from the Irish State and the Catholic Church, and (ii) the establishment of a distinct redress scheme for Magdalene survivors. Once JFM achieves these objectives, the door will be open to every survivor and/or her family and/or other groups representing Magdalene survivors to pursue their own claim for redress. And for the record: when (not if) that time comes, I will be glad to lay down the mantle and call it a job well done. I have no interest in taking on the work of running a support service or centre, don’t care to be the recipient of any State or Church compensation for such, and want to just quietly fade into the background. Having seen the state of many Irish survivor support groups, I want no part of that. I just want to kick the door down for women like my mother, and then let them all flood through on their own steam.

As part of JFM’s work, we have often been contacted by academics, researchers, documentarians, journalists, etc. In the early days, we were happy to offer our time, information and resources to these folks to help them with whatever project they undertook. Our mission was to spread awareness and their work was critical to this mission. In 2006, we were contacted by a young, eager man (an actor by training) from Ireland who wanted to create a documentary with a new twist: follow the travails of a Magdalene survivor or survivors, modern day, as they sought to achieve redress or file a claim under the existing 2002 Redress Act. We felt this was an important project and spent time connecting him with survivors we felt were up to the task of such a project, providing him background information on the Laundries, etc.

Fast forward to late 2008: said filmmaker is nearly at completion of his project and lets our online discussion group know the title he’s chosen for it: The Forgotten Maggies. Unfortunately, this caused a row among some of the group members, many survivors themselves, who feel that the term ‘Maggie’ is a derogatory insult to the women who were incarcerated in these asylums. Our young filmmaker takes great umbrage to this and a heated dispute evolves on the list over the next few months, with me and others trying to smooth the waters, unruffle feathers and generally try to keep people’s eyes on the prize: redress for Magdalene survivors. It’s about the ladies, people!

In early 2009, I approached New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House with the idea of doing a panel session on the Magdalene Laundries (they’ve done screenings before of the documentaries Sex in a Cold Climate and States of Fear). It was embraced enthusiastically by IH director Eileen Reilly and we started to plan the components. Initially, my thought was to screen Peter Mullan’s excellent The Magdalene Sisters and invite him as a panelist (I’d met with him at a Philadelphia screening in 2003 and spent fours hours over pints and fags discussing the Church and other topics with this very erudite man) as well as our resident advisory committee member and expert, the man I admire as the most esteemed scholar on the subject of the Magdalene Laundries, who has done more to further our cause than anyone I know.

But we were unable to pull the Mullan panel off, so my next thought was to invite the young documentary filmmaker to show his film, which he jumped on. Unfortunately, as plans for the Glucksman event gelled, the controversy about his documentary on our discussion list continued to devolve into angry accusations, childish behaviour and just downright nastiness, despite our best efforts to keep the train on the track.

It finally got so bad that our advisory committee scholar begged off the Glucksman event (understandably, albeit regrettably) because he didn’t want to professionally engage with this most unprofessional of young documentary filmmakers.

I managed to survive the event and even be civil and cordial to the filmmaker despite my misgivings about the quality of his film, his motivations and his practise of undermining others. After the event, I decided to keep my distance. I would neither promote his film nor decry it. He unfortunately took this and the discussion group’s criticism a bit too much to heart and thought we had turned on him, refusing to see the truth: that a documentary should be nothing if not accurate, and that it’s never wise to piss off the very people who helped get you where you are. In other words, he had bitten the very hand that fed him and then marched off declaring us all nefarious, treacherous, etc.

In fact, with the lone exception of myself, he refused to even acknowledge the help others within JFM gave him — not that they asked for acknowledgment. But it was as if survivors magically appeared from a fairy fort to talk with him and allow themselves to be filmed, rather than the careful and considered approach my colleagues took in asking the women if they’d like to participate and then liaising them with the filmmaker. We never just willy-nilly turn a survivor over to a journalist, filmmaker or other representative of the media without carefully preparing them. Primarily, out of respect for their confidentiality, we just aren’t in the habit of giving out people’s names.

And what many don’t realize (even the subjects themselves) is that even granting a short interview can bring up memories and emotions a survivor isn’t prepared to deal with. I’ve done my share of media interviews and my background isn’t nearly as harrowing as that of a survivor of a Magdalene asylum, yet it still leaves me feeling like I’ve been in a car wreck afterward. So we are very careful with how that’s handled. Our filmmaker apparently takes this to mean we’re ‘secretly’ guarding survivors or jealously hoarding them like china figurines. They are like china figurines in their fragility, but we’re certainly not hoarding them. We just like them to be prepared, fully aware of what they’re being asked for and permitted to make a decision of their own free will…something the Church never allowed them.

We’ve seen the results of his controlling, manipulative behaviour with the very women he highlighted in his documentary and now continues to trot out in an uncomfortable dog-and-pony show.

He recently screened his film at the London Irish Centre (where he seems to feel he received a less than warm reception — no wonder, since he originally wanted to charge survivors to see his film!) One attendee at this screening said that “…at the end he asked the woman to stand up and more or less ‘let the people look at you.’ [Survivor – name removed by request] , who was also in front of me had to be pushed to stand up but would not face the crowd and the others tried to get her to turn but she remained rigid.’ Apparently our gallant filmmaker doesn’t understand that pushing these women into very public and traumatic scenarios like this is about like putting someone through intensive therapy and not ‘putting them back together’ before they leave the therapist’s office.

In other words, he is piling trauma upon trauma and it’s agonising to watch these poor women dance to his machinations.

And the poor sod has even gone so far as to libel us, declaring via a shared e-mail that we had gotten “$10,000 from Miramax” for our cause. The truth is (and Miramax brass are prepared to back this up), we received an in-kind donation of 5,000 black-and-white postcards to be used in a campaign to mail then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

He’s now banded together the original women featured in his documentary (two of whom also wanted to be part of our advocacy group, and one of whom actually was on our committee until she was told by the filmmaker that she had to declare an allegiance to one or the other of us!) along with some other survivors and started a group called ‘Magdalen Survivors United’. Recently they began a public Facebook group in support of Magdalene survivors called Magdalene Survivors Together. I tried to join this group, but apparently was blocked by the young man. When I contacted and clarified by e-mail with him that I was indeed blocked, and suggested that this was discrimination, his response was: “If that’s the way you see it that’s your choice!” Wow, that’s professional.

No, my friend…it is discrimination, pure and simple. I am the daughter of a Magdalene survivor and I am not permitted to join a public Facebook group devoted to Magdalene survivors and, presumably, their family members, because of my affiliation with another group. Boy, do I feel like I’m in the third grade again (“Wipe your mouth, you look like a dirty Irish orphan.” That’s a bastard story for another day).

So enough is enough: I’m outing him publicly. This is a man who refuses to accept that his film may have some warts and could not digest constructive criticism to save his life; this is a man who manipulated women no differently than the way they were cruelly manipulated and controlled by the very nuns and priests who abused them (despite that they may not even know they’re being manipulated); this is a man who will not allow these same women to have any allegiance or ties to our advocacy group; and this is the man who will not allow me — a Magdalene survivor family member — to join a public Facebook group.

In fact, this type of behaviour is actually indicative of an abusive personality, a personality I’m unfortunately all too familiar with thanks to my late, abusive husband. And as I know only too well, the women involved, victims of abuse at an early age themselves, are perversely attracted to this type of personality and can be easily swayed by a manipulator of his ilk. They like to control, isolate and bully, but do it as smoothly as a used-car salesman. Ask any cop on the beat and they can generally spot the type a mile away. They don’t all use their fists, either.

It is also, sadly, indicative of the way many Irish survivor groups have gone. They devolve into elementary schoolyard donnybrooks: “You can join this group…but you can’t! Nyaaah, nyaaah, nyaah.” In fact, some have devolved into actual donnybrooks featuring real violence and allegations of fraud, misuse of funds, etc. Which is why I share the motto of the esteemed Mr. Paddy Doyle: nothing about us without us.

And now apparently our young “hero” has moved on into the murky and often treacherous waters of adoption search and reunion. He crowed from his Facebook group: “50 Years ago a mother was seperated from her daughter. 50 years later the same mother and daughter have been reunited. her mother had struggled for 10 years to find her daughter. It took me 3 weeks to find her. I’m delighted to have played my part, I’m delighted to have been the one to reunite them. Anything in this life is possible!” and later, “Delighted to announce that mother and daughter are getting on fantasticly [sic]! It was great to see such lovely photos of both of them together after all this time. It’s amazing to think that each involved has no regrets or sorrows. Can’t wait to catch up with them again.. JUst goes to show everyone has a Gaurdian Angel, yo…u [sic] just have to find them. Such an emotional thanks, done with such decency, respect and gratitude to me for my help. “) So glad the woman contacted me initally as there’s alot of people out there who claim they can help when they can’t.” [no misreading the last aspersion — that’s a direct potshot at a legitimate organisation that does do fine work].

I have never in all my many years in adoption reform, activism and support seen any one of our very humble, reliable and behind-the-scenes ‘search angels’ (folks who volunteer their time and expertise to trace down birth certs, lost relatives, etc.) express a level of self-glorification like the above. “It’s all about MEEEEEEEE! Aren’t I grand? Aren’t I brilliant?”

What’s saddest of all is this young man doesn’t get that the arcane laws that prevent family members from knowing and finding one another, that prevent access to the documents of our birth, and that prevent women enslaved and abused from seeking justice, still exist in Ireland and that the real work is tearing down those walls. Those of us working toward those goals don’t seek gratification or medals or accolades. It just needs to be done. And individuals who undermine or cast aspersions on that work only denigrate themselves to the very individuals they seek to ‘represent’.

Scarier yet, this approach to trace and reunion, with no training or regard for the history behind an adoption relinquishment is not only foolhardy but possibly dangerous. Those who do the fine work of reuniting families do so with years of experience and training behind them. Not because they’ve just made a barely undergrad-quality film and now think they’ve written the book on it. I shudder to think of the potential botched reunions looming in this man’s future. But hey, I’m not gonna be the one to tell him…I’ve already spent enough time on this subject with him. Done and dusted.

I hope this is read as a cautionary tale: I stand by everything written here and do not share it lightly. This young filmmaker is not the first person to take up the painful and complicated causes of the Magdalene Laundries or adoption and make a shambles of them; nor, I suspect, will he be the last. Re-victimizing victims by exploiting them for self-glory is an international pasttime for some. Even among the victims themselves.

Adopted ‘Children’ and Parents: at age 50?

I recently read a letter to the editor of the Irish Times by a Mark Kearney of Trinity College.  I really must reassess my whole conception of Trinity as a seat of higher learning.

I couldn’t resist a rebuttal, although apparently the Times could — they didn’t publish it.  So I’ll post it here instead:

Mr Kearney’s letter rather poignantly cuts to the crux of the matter with regard to the rights of adopted people.  Interestingly, in both the title of his missive and thrice in its contents he refers to himself/other adopted people as ‘the child’ or ‘adopted children.’  As someone with children and grandchildren, who votes, pays taxes and earned the right to drink and serve in the military more donkey’s years ago than I care to count, I consider myself an adopted adult or adopted person, not a child.  Moreover, I am an adult whose rights have been abrogated not only by the Irish State, but by the U.S. as well (specifically the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) as I was chosen for exportation in the early 1960s.  And this abrogation is what continues to keep me a ‘child’ in the eyes of those governments.  In fact, in Pennsylvania, if one chooses to petition the courts to have their adoption file unsealed, the case is heard in the Juvenile Courts, even if the petitioner is 55.  Child indeed, sir.  How demeaning.

What Mr Kearney doesn’t seem to understand is that the fight isn’t about just the ridiculous wait times through agencies, the sometimes inept handling of our cases, or even the ingratiating and infantalising way we’re generally treated by agencies, often the media and general public, our parents or other family members, and perhaps most painfully by one of ‘our own’ like Mr Kearney.  Those are small injustices that pale in comparison to the true issue at hand: the fact that adults are still denied unfettered access to the documents of their birth in 2010.

Trace, contact and reunion are wholly separate issues and yes, understandably not everyone desires to know their heritage, medical history or who they resemble.  But the right to have one’s original birth certificate (a right enjoyed even by felons) should be every citizen’s right.  What they decide to do with that document is their own business.  Perhaps they’d like to just frame it and hang it on the wall.  I, too, had a very satisfactory adoptive experience and it was with the support, love and assistance of my adoptive family that I was able to trace my natural mother as well as the daughter I relinquished to adoption in the US.  Both contacts were welcomed, positive and have brought me a sense of self and healing.  I realise I was lucky in those results and that it isn’t always that way.  But I also prepared myself for the worst and knew what I could expect.  All of this was accomplished on my own and with the help of friends — the agency I first sought assistance from was not only incompetent, but unethical in many regards (c.f. vaccine trials at Bessboro’ circa 1960-61).

As they say, it’s foolish to mix apples and oranges and the right of access to one’s birth certificate should not be confused with trace and reunion.  They are not mutually inclusive.  But those, like me, who have the desire to know more about who they are and where they came from, should be treated with dignity and respect, and not as some ungrateful, whingeing ‘child’ riddled with insecurities and self-esteem issues.

Using terminology like ‘adopted children’ smacks of the concept that adoption begins and ends with the receipt of a ‘warm bundle of joy,’ when in fact it’s a lifelong process.  Perhaps Mr Kearney could benefit from the words of the Rev. Keith C. Griffith, MBE: “Adoption loss is the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful.”

I am furious.

I am furious.  Absolutely furious.  Over a week ago, the Justice for Magdalenes organization issued a press release to all of the major newspapers and media in Ireland as well as to all members and parties of government (full press release is shown below).  We challenged the compartmentalised, two-tiered response by the Irish state towards institutional abuse that results in survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, many of them children at the time, once again being ignored under the 2002 Redress Act.

Specifically we asked that the Minister for Children investigate the plight of children (which we now have mounting evidence that some were as young as 11 years old) who were placed directly into Magdalene Laundries.  Their applications to the Residential Redress Board are routinely rejected because “the Applicant had not established that she was resident in an institution covered by the Act or any Order made thereunder.”

Not one media outlet or newspaper or government official responded or publicised the press release.  Not one.

For fourteen years, since the inception of the original Magdalene Memorial Committee (which morphed into Justice for Magdalenes in the late 1990’s), we have fought a Sisyphean battle to seek justice for the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries.  Yet it would appear the media (and perhaps the public) are more interested in viewing again and again the ‘exoticness’ of survivor trauma – the gut-wrenching stories of misery these women were subjected to, often far worse than prisons.  How much more does the public need to see or hear before they take action?

We challenge Irish society to stop clamouring for the tragic stories, watching and reading as if bystanders at a car wreck scene, and stand up for the abrogated rights of these women.  Take action and write your local TD.  Tell them you support the cause of justice for Magdalene survivors – a decent pension for the unpaid labour they performed, a public apology from all the religious orders responsible for their incarceration, an investigation of the illegally unreported deaths at High Park Convent and the equally illegally exhumed bodies moved from those grounds, and acknowledgement that the fabled land of ‘saints and scholars’ was complicit in not ‘cherishing children’ equally and treating women as something less than human.

 


Press Release:  29 July, 2009 

Justice for Magdalenes committee calls on Government to provide redress for Magdalene survivors

Justice for Magdalenes welcomes the publication of the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, 2009: Implementation Plan, and we look forward to witnessing the immediate implementation of the ninety-nine measures outlined therein.

However, we challenge the compartmentalised, two-tiered response by the Irish state towards institutional abuse that results in survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, many of them children at the time, once again being ignored.

Specifically we ask that the Minister for Children investigate the plight of children (which we now have mounting evidence that some were as young as 11 years old) who were placed directly into Magdalene Laundries.  Their applications to the “Residential Redress Board” are routinely rejected because “the Applicant had not established that she was resident in an institution covered by the Act or any Order made thereunder.”

“The fact that these children were never committed to a residential institution (e.g., an industrial or reformatory school) is immaterial,” said Justice for Magdalenes spokesperson Mari Steed, whose mother was a Magdalene.  “The fact that a family member signed these children into the ‘care’ of the nuns does not obviate the state’s responsibility for their welfare. These children were and are citizens of the state and they deserved to be cherished.  Yet increasingly we’re discovering they were all but ‘invisibly’ moved between residential institutions and Magdalene Laundries, with little or no record maintained by the religious orders or Departments of Health, Education, Children or Justice,” she added.

Children’s Minister Barry Andrews in his remarks insisted that Irish people no longer show deference towards the Catholic Church. But the government maintains precisely the same deferent attitude towards the religious congregations that operated the nation’s Magdalene Laundries, i.e., the Good Shepherd Sisters, Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, and Mercy Sisters. No one has apologised.  No one held accountable. And the core issue is still liability and the State’s evasion of all financial responsibility for institutions they continue to view as “private” and “voluntary.”  This deference is also clear in the government’s dismissal of claims submitted by non-Catholic survivors of such institutions as the Bethany Home.  JFM demands that the Minister for Children introduce amending legislation whereby survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, regardless of how they entered such institutions, are provided with redress and reparation for their abusive childhoods, the unpaid labour they performed and the abrogation of their civil and human rights.

Furthermore, JFM demands that the Minister for Justice introduce legislation for a distinct redress scheme for survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries as outlined by JFM and submitted to all politicians in Dáil Éireann on July 3 (copy attached).

[END]

Justice for Magdalenes seeks to promote and represent the interests of the Magdalene Women, to respectfully promote equality and seek justice for the women formerly incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries and to seek the establishment / improvements of support/advisory/re-integration services provided for survivors.