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.”

A Modest Proposal

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TO: The Adoption Authority of Ireland
Shelbourne House, Shelbourne Road
Dublin 4
Republic of Ireland

RE: A Modest Proposal

Dear Chairman Shannon and Board Members,

It has come to my attention that the Adoption Authority of Ireland recently met with the U.S. Department of State with a view toward establishing a bilateral adoption agreement that would allow for the export of available U.S. citizens to Ireland for purposes of adoption, particularly from Florida. I understand this is in response to continued insatiable demand by prospective adopting couples in Ireland, who have been thwarted by now closed-off avenues such as Vietnam, Russia and other ‘sending’ countries.

I am aware that these avenues were cut off because of mounting cases of fraud, illegal and gray-market practice and inability to comply with the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. And that’s as it should be. I am pleased that the Authority took such action to insure that adoption practice is always carried out for the right reasons and in the best interests of the child involved. Adoption should always be about finding homes for children who desperately need them; not about finding children for homes that desperately want them.

But now Ireland turns to the U.S. as a sending source. And while on the surface, one would imagine this to be an idyllic situation – after all, America is a developed nation, one of the ‘greatest’ in the world – unfortunately, as an adopted adult living in the U.S., I sadly know it is far from idyllic. Many U.S. states continue to abrogate the rights of adopted adults. Original birth certificates in all but six U.S. states remain retroactively sealed. And of those six states with some measure of openness, only three offer complete, unfettered access to the original birth certificate (Kansas, Alaska and Oregon). Moreover, adoption agencies in many U.S. states continue to violate the Hague, dealing in gray-market placements, coerced relinquishment practice, infant stealing and trafficking, and shoddy post-adoption services.

In looking to Florida as a potential sending ‘source’, one cannot find a more abhorrent situation. As a ‘border’ (water) state, Florida is a gateway to thousands of illegals entering the U.S., largely from Latin America. And a good part of that illegal flow is equally illegally trafficked children, often outright stolen from parents with little resources or understanding, from countries like Haiti, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile and elsewhere. Florida also has an abysmal placement record even among its own citizens and many agencies operating out of the state continue to use practices such as falsifying birth certificate, allow private, ‘sub rosa’ unregulated adoptions (c.f. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), improper vetting of prospective parents (resulting in poor placements which often leave children at risk for abuse and neglect) and, of course, sealing the original birth certificates of adopted adults in the state.

It is ironic, too, that Ireland would look to the U.S. as a sending source now, considering it has hardly dealt with the aftermath of its own export of children to the U.S. from the 1940s through the 1960s. The Adoption Authority recently reaccredited St. Patrick’s Guild, an agency notoriously involved in the past child export scheme and still currently involved in investigations concerning fraud (c.f. Tressa Reeves and other pending cases). St. Patrick’s, along with the Sacred Heart Adoption Society, St. Patrick’s Home (Navan Road) and others, sent thousands of Irish children to the U.S., often illegally (particularly those sent prior to the 1952 Adoption Act). Informed consent and signed relinquishments were given little thought in that time, and mothers were often cruelly unaware of where their children were being sent, or that they were giving permanent relinquishment. Concrete evidence exists that many of those children were used in unethical vaccine trials conducted by Burroughs Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline); this investigation is still ongoing, despite recent attempts by the Oireachtas Health Committee to once again sweep it under the carpet.

I was one of Ireland’s original ‘Banished Babies.’ And I have a modest proposal for the Irish Adoption Authority. Rather than risk the potential for fraud, corruption and violations of the Hague Convention and take a chance on ‘unknown’ U.S. children, why not choose a ‘known quantity’?

I would like to offer myself for placement with any Irish parents seeking to adopt from the U.S.

I already possess Irish citizenship rights; am toilet-trained and easily adaptable; speak English well (albeit with an American accent); I get along well with others; and most importantly, I come unfettered as my mother long ago gave up rights to me, is more than likely dead, and even if still alive, because of the shabby, post-adoption trace assistance offered me by my original placing agency in Ireland, I am unlikely to ever find members of my family of origin. I could even pay my own way over. I can cook and clean, drive my new family around and be quite useful.

I promise not to be ‘ungrateful,’ whinge over my circumstances or create a nuisance for my new family. I’ve already been broken of those ‘bad habits’ by my former adoptive family, agencies and the general public. All I seek is repatriation to the land of my birth and I can be whatever my new family wants me to be. I understand that being at least 50 years of age, I may be a bit ‘older’ than what my new family expects. But I am truly in need of a good home – a home in the land where I was born, before being cruelly ripped away from my first mother and shipped more than 3,000 miles away to a strange, new country at an age where I was already walking, talking and had a close, prolonged bonding experience with my first mother for nearly two years. But don’t worry – I’m over all that now, which is one of the benefits of advanced age. In another few years, I likely won’t remember it all. And the good news is, my new family won’t have to deal with me for long, or at least no more than 30-40 years, which is far less than what they’d have to contend with in procuring a newborn.

Most importantly, this proposal is quite a ‘green’ option: recycling citizens (particularly trained, working, tax-paying ones), rather than bringing in new ones to add to the already overburdened Irish economy just makes sense.

I do hope you’ll consider my proposal with all due seriousness. And if not, at least consider cleaning up the mess left by Ireland’s previous ‘export’ business before repeating history, only in reverse.

Sincerely yours,

Mari Steed
nee Mary Therese Fitzpatrick
or whatever new name you’d like to assign me…hell, I’m easy.

Lamentation, Feet-Washing: Why Paddy Doyle is a Great Man

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Paddy Doyle, author of ‘The God Squad’

Despite spending most of his adult life bound to a wheelchair, Paddy Doyle is a formidable man. Formidable in many ways. After years of neglect and abuse in the Cappoquin, Wexford, industrial school in Ireland (including continued misdiagnosis and medical experimentation which resulted in his ongoing health battles), Paddy was one of the early voices exposing the extraordinary horrors many Irish children were subjected to under the “watchful” eye of Church and State. His book The God Squad (1989, Raven Arts Press/Transworld UK) serves as the definitive survivor’s testimony. It is an unapologetic, unflinching, and often humorous account of his battle with dystonia (which he pithily maintains, “It might well sound like a breakaway Russian Republic but it isn’t”) and a life punctuated by abuse and loss. I cannot recommend this book enough – it is so completely opposite the typical mis-lit treatise that it stands apart. You will not pity Paddy – you will applaud this man’s iron will and wry outlook on life, despite what that life has hurled at him.

When he was four years old, Paddy’s mother died of cancer, and he witnessed his father’s subsequent suicide by hanging.

Incarceration followed in a series of institutions, in which he was not just used with harshness, ignorance and insensitivity, but was also subject to physical and sexual abuse, culminating in brain surgery. He is now permanently crippled in body though not in spirit.

He has used his experience well and is now recognized as one of Ireland’s leading disability activists and has served as member of the government-appointed Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities. Paddy was also recently been appointed by the Government as a member of the Memorial Committee to Survivors of Child Abuse.

I’ve been privileged to know Paddy through his Internet circle of friends and fellow campaigners for some years now. I’ve enjoyed many an amusing and enlightening e-mail exchange with Mr. Doyle, and my life is enriched knowing him.

When the child abuse scandal first broke in Ireland, Paddy was one of a very few voices of reason advocating that no deals be cut, no decisions made, without the input of every survivor. “Nothing about us without us” has long been his motto, and with good reason. Many ‘representatives of’ survivors and survivor groups played loose and fast, dealing sub rosa with the Irish State and the Catholic Church and in the process, sadly rendering survivors’ rights impotent. Some have even further perpetuated the abuse upon their own by misusing funds paid out by Church and State meant for survivors’ needs.

Paddy saw all of this coming, warned against it and continues to expose it. He suffers no fool lightly. Last week, he sent an alert to his wide circle of friends to let us know a ceremony was being planned for Sunday, February 20 at Dublin’s Pro Cathedral – a “Liturgy of Lament and Repentance.” Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston and Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin were on hand to perform a symbolic “foot-washing” for selected abuse survivors, among them prominent survivor spokeswoman Christine Buckley. Read the full text of the service at the Boston Globe.

The irony of this dog-and-pony-show is not lost among those of us who continue to campaign for justice for survivors whose voices have not yet been heard; particularly survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Protestant-run Bethany Home, who were omitted from the 2002 Redress Act. ‘Twas Mary Magdalene herself made most famous for the whole foot-washing thing, now equally infamous for her connection to the Church ‘penitent’ model, notably as applied to the Magdalene Laundries and their ‘penitent’ slaves.

procathedral_picture_41298308010Sunday’s particular show was organised between the Church and abuse survivors Father Paddy McCafferty, Catholic activist Paddy Monaghan and survivor Marie Collins, who allegedly set about preparing a liturgy in consultation with survivor groups. Unfortunately, this consultation did not include voices like Paddy’s, mine and many other good people. Had we been consulted, we would’ve advised against such a theatrical spectacle, as it does nothing for the very real needs of an aging population coping with the results of a lifetime of abuse, denied education and life skills and struggling with daily needs such as housing and medical care. Not to mention those still left without even a public apology.

I think any of us in Paddy’s circle could agree that this exercise scheduled for Sunday was a slap in the face to so many who seek justice as more than a foot bath. And today’s press would indicate it backfired in a mighty way. But the slap didn’t end there. Paddy made the trip up to Dublin on the day from his home south of Dublin, accompanied by Mary Smith, a woman whose mother had been sent to a Laundry after falling pregnant with Mary. Mary herself ended up shunted off to an industrial school and Laundry. She had a letter for Cardinal O’Malley with her and wanted to attend the ceremony and deliver it to him.

Paddy Doyle and Mary Smith are refused entrance at Dublin’s Pro Cathedral

But Paddy and Mary were denied admittance at the door. A phalanx of Irish gardai and Church officials would not allow them in. Amid a group of survivors protesting the event, Paddy told The Irish Times it was “getting to the stage where apologies are becoming cliches.”

In the wake of the 2009 Ryan Report and then the collapse of the Irish economy and call for new government, this theater of the absurd foot-washing episode seems a desperate cry by Church (and State) to be done with it all…more of a symbolic hand-washing rather than foot-washing. As my colleague in Justice for Magdalenes, Professor James Smith put it: “It is as if now that the national finances are in the toilet, the notion of justice, ethics, [and] morality is suddenly contingent on the national coffers.” And Sunday’s service was an expedient and desperate attempt to put close to it all. Many of us are still dealing with, as James put it, “closed ranks and silence” on serious human rights issues: the abuse and unpaid labour of the Laundries; vaccine trials perpetrated on babies marked for adoption, without mothers’ consent; survivors of the Bethany Home; and more.

And yet somehow this morning, the ever-pragmatic Paddy was able to put his infamous humourous spin on it all: “The cops couldn’t arrest me because they hadn’t got a van to put the wheelchair in!”

Paddy is the keeper of the fire that burns in those of us still denied justice. An ailing economy and Church urgency to get their house in order (which involves further sweeping of elephants under the carpet) will not silence or stop our voices. And certainly not with the formidable Mr. Doyle leading the charge. Long may he reign.

The Reluctant American

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I am an American. But not by birth nor by choice. Fate, kharma, the butterfly effect…all these shaped my destiny to become something, to be defined as something. This definition is one I wear quite uncomfortably. I am a reluctant American and feel no shame in admitting it.

What I felt nine years ago, on that day of horror when America suffered its first, real wake-up call, has not changed much. On September 11, 2001, like millions of my compatriots, I sat and watched the destruction of three great symbols of this nation’s strength, the instantaneous (I hope) death of thousands of men and women who had simply marched off to work that morning, and I cried.

But I also felt a sense of disconnectedness because of my native “non-American”-ness. And almost that I did not have permission to grieve this event (although I am familiar with that, not having been permitted to grieve the loss of my mother through adoption, and of my own daughter to adoption). It’s hard to explain to people what that “no grief allowed” feeling is like.

Yet being somewhat on the “outside” allowed me a look at the process of recovery from that devastation in a unique way. Far from understanding the kind of hatred that led miseducated young men down a path of intolerance and the ultimate expression of intolerance, I do understand why people have come to dislike America. Always there’s such noble talk about our generosity, spirit, devotion to nation — all those things are true. No one denies it. But they are unfortunately mixed in equal part with the antithesis of all those qualities. We’ve displayed those too often lately.

I see a nation that has become more and more confused. The strength and solidarity that arose in the immediate wake of 9/11, led by the indefatigable and stalwart citizens of New York, have been laid to waste. We’ve instead chosen to follow the false preachings and prophecy of the media, our elected leaders and our religious leaders. We’ve allowed these same charlatans to guide the way we feel about our fellow man, about individuals’ rights and what we do, say and believe.

Barely a year after 9/11, I was awaiting a return flight to the U.S. from Heathrow Airport. Because I am European — Irish by birth — my children and I had no trouble physically blending in with the crowds waiting along with us for destinations all over the world. Black, brown, tan, white — all blended in a planetary olio with nary a qualm among us. Yet the minute the three of us opened our mouths (however quietly we may have been talking), we saw ears prick at our distinct Philadelphia accents and registered the looks of digust, suspicion and downright hatred directed at us. This was what it was like to be an American traveling abroad in 2002.

And I can’t say I blame those immediate reactions to our presence on European soil. I understood what they felt. They, too, were listening to their own false sources for fear-mongering, false patriotism and prejudice, after all.

The latest carry-on from “pastor” Terry Jones in Gainesville, FL is but the flashpoint of the moment, highlighting all that is wrong with our media, our leaders and our own warped belief system. That he backed down from his planned Quran burning today simply drives home for me just how much of a hyped event this was; and maybe it was designed as such so Jones could fill his ailing coffers and self-promote. How low we’ve sunk.

The planning of a mosque and Muslim community center near ground zero is a flashpoint of another color, but no less ugly. I think it drives more directly to our core confusion over issues of spirituality, tolerance and the differences between us. And I am also acutely aware of the feelings of some of my New York friends for whom the mosque issue is one of “sensitivity” and “respect” to their loss of loved ones in 2001. But on September 11th and in the days that followed, I never saw “sensitive” New Yorkers, certainly not in the thin-skinned sense. I saw sensitivity and caring in those who responded, by risking life and limb, and by providing comfort, aid and resources afterward. What I witnessed were a tough people who showed they could survive an act of aggression with dignity, with deserved pride, and with their humanity intact.

I believe they are mistaking “sensitivity” for an inability to forgive an entire Islamic people for the actions of the fringe. And that forgiveness must come if they and all of us are to complete the cycle of standing strong, surviving with our humanity intact and healing from an event that no doubt sent all of us –globally — reeling.

To me, the ultimate expression of respect would be for a Muslim community to build a place of prayer and worship and an ecumenical community center of learning near grounds where such a horror occurred.

If you believe otherwise, then the obvious corollary would be to destroy any Christian churches near the site of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, or near Auschwitz or Dachau. I find it the height of Christian hypocrisy to see radical Islamic aggression as abhorrent while forgetting past horrors like the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, or the latest unveiling of the Catholic Church’s history of rape and abuse of children and women. Pope Benedict decries the planned beheading of a Muslim woman? Yet he and his cohorts turn a blind eye to horrors perpetrated within their own ranks, to women thrown into Magdalene laundries to spend a lifetime performing slave labor, for no more than the “crime” of being pretty?

We are a nation of confused morals, beliefs, feelings and causes. 9/11 threw us into an age of darkness: of mistrust and suspicion; of conspiracy theories and mud-slinging. The strength, resiliency, spirit and humanness following that event were soon lost in a swirling morass of ignorance. The howling patriotism that replaced it taught us to hate and to believe that to fight is right, regardless of the purity of the cause. Rather than helping really meaningful missions like that of Greg Mortenson — building schools in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Muslim regions, with the guarantee that education includes Muslim girls — we’ve built our own personal madrassas of hate-learning, fed by the media and whatever pablum our government officials believe will help get them elected next term.

I grow more and more apalled and frightened by the pure, mindless hatred I see in people — even those I am related to (albeit not by blood) or once considered sane, thoughtful individuals. Now it’s abetted by a crumbling economy, joblessness and corporate greed. I know the day will come soon when my own tolerance for this type of arrogance and fear will likely send me away from my adopted country. There is so much I love about this country and its people, yet I see it become more and more poisoned by senseless bigotry and lack of understanding. And if not for the current economic climate, I’ve no doubt I would’ve repatriated several years ago.

So yes, I am reluctant to call myself American and I know that will immediately raise the ire of some who will read this. They will shake their fists, their faces will go red and they will no doubt be thinking (or saying), “Well, then go back from wherever you came from, you #$@%!” But it isn’t that easy — I didn’t ask for my citizenship; I didn’t choose it. It’s a coat I must wear uncomfortably in hopes that either my fellow citizens open their eyes and hearts, or until I can shrug myself of that coat and at least reclaim my own birthright.

But for today, my heart goes out to all those who lost their lives, their innocence and their humanity nine years ago. May true peace and healing grow from that loss, and may we forgive those who did not or do not understand what true freedom means.

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.

SEPTA Tales: Regional Rail Misery

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I’ve felt a rant coming for a long time on this topic.  Perhaps some of you fellow regional rail riders will commiserate.  Some of you may think I’m just a cranky middle-aged woman.  But it’s got to get off my chest or I fear I will have to invest in a larger bra.

I am a daily SEPTA passenger on the R7 train line to Philadelphia, which delivers and collects humans from Trenton, NJ through Chestnut Hill outside the city.  Because the R7 − like its sister the Main Line R5 − shares tracks with the Northeast corridor’s Amtrak train, we are beseiged by any number of outtages, electrical issues and ‘police activity’ alerts on any given day.  We also have to put up with the hyper-speed Amtrak Acela, which blows by my departing station, Cornwells Heights, with such force that I often find my morning Metro plastered in my face or my umbrella departing Mary Poppins-like into the wind.

Back in the early 1980’s, I used to ride what was then known as the Chestnut Hill East, when SEPTA was the more customer-friendly Conrail.  Ah, those were the good old days − smoking cars and partying with the conductors, sharing $2 styrofoam cups of beer from the Reading Terminal Bar (see Brian DePalma’s Blowout for the full ambience of that place).  Passengers became friendly with one another − hell, I regularly met with some of my fellow smoking-car riders for a monthly Chinese BYOB get-together off the Wyndmoor station.  Politeness was the rule.

No more.

Maybe it’s just the more brutal nature of the Northeast Philadelphia commuter as opposed to the more genteel, suburban/Chestnut Hill character.  Maybe its just that humans have become surlier in general.  But I have to say, in my fifty years on this orb, I have yet to encounter the level of sheer rudeness I’ve met on the Northeast R7.  And I’m not talking rowdy teenagers, disaffected urban youth or New York passengers passing from or through Philly.  I’m talking 60-plus year-old women.

Case study #1:  While waiting for my after-work train at Suburban Station one day, I observed what I’ve come to call the NE Hags −a gaggle of late-50’s, early 60’s bubbleheads nearing retirement from dead-end clerical jobs with center city law firms − going through their usual motions: jockeying for position on the platform, subtly shifting one foot, then another, to nudge out a waiting commuter.  Then there’s the ubiquitous member of the Hag Club who has to assault everyone with massive doses of her vanilla body spray. Um, here’s a news flash for ya, Hag: vanilla is a food flavoring.  Occasionally, it can neutralize room odors as a candle or air freshener.  But it does not belong on the human body.

The head Hag jockey is a dumpy, dim-witted woman who stands as near as she can to a platform support column, knowing this is where her preferred train door generally stops, swinging her bag like a 5-year old waiting for the school bus and chattering to her fellow Hags like a magpie on Meth.  She just makes me feel…wierd.  And nervous with all that frenetic bag-swinging.

As the R7 rolled in, the NE Hags began to swarm en masse toward the door, well before said door even comes near them.  As the train stops, the conductor steps off and the Hag coterie pushes as a mob toward the opening.  But wait.  What’s this?  A passenger is debarking?!  Good Christ, someone actually GETTING OFF THE TRAIN?!!  This has put a serious kink in the Hags’ usual daily manoeuvre.

So they decide to just walk over the passenger as a horde.  But said passenger is a rather large, burly man who ain’t havin’ it.  He’d like to get off the train thank-you-very-much.  Yet the Hags persist.  So the debarker lets fly a few (well-deserved, in my observation) expletives: “Jesus f*cking Christ, can I getoff the train?!” among them.   The Hags go all a-twitter,with the head bag-swinging magpie jockey exclaiming to the conductor that this man is “abusing” them.  Meanwhile, the conductor blithely stands just a foot or so from this scrum, not saying or doing a thing.  I’m convinced some  SEPTA regional rail conductors are specifically trained to do just that.  And they do it well.

Burly debarker is still struggling to get off the train and still, the Hags push ever onward.  Finally I can stand no more and address the conductor, “Um…are you going to help this guy get off, or let these women trample him to death?”  I hear a few fellow platform folk mutter, “Yeah…dude…let him off.” Finally jarred into action, the conductor flushes and allows, “Ladies, please let passengers off the train.”  The sea of Hags reluctantly parts and burlyman finally makes his relieved exit.  I’m sure he’s had nightmares for months.  I know better than to try to force myself into this Hag flying wedge and allow them to jostle for their favored seats.  But while waiting, I remark to the conductor, “Yeesh.  These women would climb over their own dead mothers to get on this train!”  He smiles sheepishly and shrugs.

Shrugs?!

Case #2: SEPTA has, mercifully, gone the way of the times and designated the first rail car on all rush-hours trains a “quiet car,” free from cell phone noise, over-loud iPods and screaming Hags.  Unfortunately, being that this is only one car among 7 to 8 on any given rush-hour line, it’s usually full to the brim before it even hits Suburban Station.  Nonetheless, SEPTA has a posted policy on keeping cell phone conversations quiet, music turned low and passenger conversations quiet on every train car.  Yet daily I am beseiged with the cell phone screamers, heavy metal enthusiasts with their mp3 players cranked to 11, screaming Hags and the occasional loud, misbehaved child.  And again, many conductors do nothing.  Even when you ask them.

On one particular ride, I was treated to a New York commuter who boarded at 30th Street Station,  headed for the NJ Transit connection with two enormous suitcases and a penchant for extremely loud phone conversation.  As the conductor passed to collect tickets, I quietly asked him if he would implore the woman to turn down the volume of her conversation.  I would have asked her myself (and have done so many times in the past, usually with positive results, being a fairly direct yet polite individual), but she was very large and was glaring at everyone around her.  So I decided to let the conductor do his job.  But he ignored me and moved on.

At the next station stop, I opted to just move cars to escape the insanely loud woman (who was now describing a friend’s weekend sexual escapades).  As I passed into the next car, which did look unusually dark and empty, I heard the conductor behind me yelling, “Hey lady!  That car is closed − you can’t go in there!”  Perhaps it was the scene of a murder?  Some loud cell phone-talker finally silenced?  Belatedly I realized this, and started back into my car of origin while telling the conductor, “Well, I asked you to intervene and have that woman speak a bit more softly, but you ignored me.”  He gave me a pithy look, as if I’d asked him to wrestle a large kimodo dragon (probably not far off the mark), and replied, “You’ll have to move forward the other way.”  No apology for not doing as I requested and putting the kibosh on Cell Phone Screamer; no apology for anything.

C’est la vie.

Case #3: This was my Waterloo…my breaking point.  Today.  It’s a Friday night.  It’s hot. I can taste that waiting glass of pinot grigio like nobody’s business.  We all want to get home.  So I wait on the platform with the usual NE Hags and make my bedraggled way onto the R7, taking my usual seat in one of the facing 4-seaters at the door of the train.  A group of quieter women, also regular riders, join me in the remaining three seats.  I dive intoCourtesans, a marvelous chronicle of the lives of several 17th and 18th century English demi-reps.  All is well.  My seatmates are conversing quietly and the ride isn’t long − this train expresses to three stops before my own.  Pinot, here I come.  My fellow Northeast Philly denizens debark at Holmesburg, then onward we go to Torresdale.

As we leave Torresdale station, another regular rider opposite our 4-seater rises in advance of my own stop, the Cornwells Heights station.  I follow suit behind her as I notice a very short, 60-ish woman in my periphery making her way up the aisle.  This is not an infrequent occurrence: often more aggressive riders will begin making their way from their back-of-train seats toward the door, jockeying to get ahead of those passengers seated closer to the door who, by all rules of etiquette, should be permitted to exit first.  But the NE Hags are excellent at manoeuvering, and not possessed of any depth of character, manners or intelligence.  So often as not, you’ll find at least one or more shoving their way ahead of passengers seated closer to the exit.  It’s all in the timing and I try to anticipate this level of absurdity, rising well before my station, and I and my fellow front-riders position ourselves such that the Hags cannot pass.

Except that this one little Hag was determined.  When the train rolled to a halt at Cornwells Heights, she decided to show her displeasure with my ranking in the disembarcation order by violently shoving me as I tried to exit.  And I mean violently.  She thrust a fist into my back.  As a survivor of domestic violence, I learned the lesson on bullies when my late husband fired a round into himself and me.  I survived; he didn’t.  So I turned and firmly said, “Donot try to shove me again.”  At which point she uttered the brilliant retort, “Drop dead!”  Why, so you can climb over me more easily?

Part of the Pennsylvania code on simple assault defines it as an “…attempt[s] to cause or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another.”  Hag jabbing her fist into me just because I happened to be standing between her and the train door meets that definition.  Telling me to drop dead probably constitutes a threat as well.

But I curb further response/action, and continue on down the train steps, where the conductor stands waiting on the platform.  I feel another shove in my back and Hag steps on my skirt, causing me to pitch forward and then jerk back.  Luckily I’m holding the stair rail or I’d be face-planted on the platform.  I’m now in a state of a complete and utter shock that a fellow passenger would show such a level of violence for no good reason.  As I gratefully touch down on the platform, I turn to the conductor and say, “Excuse me, she just tried to push me down the stairs…she assaulted me.”  I’m expecting immediate, concerned response…cops called…train unavoidably delayed due to ‘police activity.’

But that ain’t happening.

This fairly regular conductor is named Glenn.  He is not the same conductor as in Case #1, but had been our ticket-taker for some time and is generally a jovial, passenger-flirty fellow.  Although a term like “conscientious” is not one I’d apply to Glenn and his attention to his job.  He’s been known to cavort and flirt with his young, female passengers du jour between cars, an area expressly forbidden to SEPTA passengers while a train is in motion.  I don’t even want to know what they do or say.  I just keep my nose in my book and mind my own business.

I do have confidence that Glenn is only too well aware of the Hag situation on the R7 (I’ve heard him joke to some of his young female friends about the “screaming old ladies” and in particular, some pretty scathing comments about the head bag-swinging Hag) and will receive my complaint in a serious, or at least understanding, manner.  So imagine my surprise when he responds to my report of an assault with, “Well, I guess she’s not your friend!”

Now, in fairness, I suppose it’s possible that Glenn thought the Hag and I knew each other and were role-playing.  Although he sees me ride every afternoon, by myself, rarely making conversation with fellow passengers, and generally absorbed in whatever book I’m currently reading.  So after seconds of my blinking in astonishment at Glenn’s laconic assessment and him standing there grinning, with the Hag still hot on my heels glaring menacingly, I am so in shock that I decide the better part of valor is to just continue gamely to the lower parking lot where my daughter waits.  A second, even louder “DROP DEAD!” rings in my ears, and I note the Hag has continued safely beyond me to the waiting Park-and-Ride buses.

By the time I reach my daughter’s car, the reality of what I experienced and the complete, utter inaction of our SEPTA conductor has hit and my Irish is pretty well up into triple digits.  I share the experience with my very sympathetic daughter, who has been regaled with countless tales of daily SEPTA foolishness and mayhem.  And then I whip out my cell phone and decide to call SEPTA.

After going through the requisite selections to speak to a living, breathing customer service representative, I finally get to spill my tale of assault.  I provide the rep with descriptions, names (Glenn’s) and other details of the incident.  The seemingly-concerned rep asks if I was injured.  I tell him no, but I am somewhat shaken by the event and shocked at the lack of response by the conductor.  The rep then deadpans, “Well, we usually consider assault something like a knifing, shooting or fist-fight…”  So I then treat him to the Pennsylvania code on assault, and explain how Hag’s hitting me in the back with her fist and trying to shove me off the stairs meets that code.  At that point, I heard keyboard clicking and the rep muttering, “Glenn…Glenn…” as he’s clearly looking up conductor assignments for the R7.  Perhaps he’s actually taking me seriously.   I further explain that this sort of rude behavior (minus the fists) is pretty standard fare on the R7  and is not a phenomena I’ve experienced taking other lines, like the R2 Warminster or R3 West Trenton.  I suggest that maybe it’s time that conductors on this line start taking their jobs seriously and put a clamp on the rudeness.  In other words, do their job.

In due course, I am assigned an incident number and asked for a phone number to which someone will (allegedly) respond with a follow-up.  I am told that the incident will be reported to the regional rail management center.  I thank the very polite rep and ring off.

The pinot has partly assuaged the sting of the assault.  It’s actually going down quite well, thank you.  But it remains to be seen how seriously SEPTA takes complaints of this nature.  I will have to clamber on board the R7 Monday morning and may well encounter my bully again on the ride home.  Bullies – be they incredibly rude and violent train commuters or those we encounter on the roads around our Levittown neighborhood − seem to thrive in abundance in this neck of the Philadelphia region.  I don’t know why that’s the case.  Perhaps it’s because this is known to be a rough-and-tumble, hard-luck, working-class area where folks have had to fight for every scrap they’ve got.  But as a widowed mother who raised two kids on a largely non-profit salary, I’m down with the whole working-class ethos and have had to scrabble my own way forward.  Hell, I chose to live in this area because of the cheaper properties and my disgust with the bourgeoisie of our former snooty Bucks County neighborhood. The key difference is I was raised with manners and a sense of justice.  I hold doors open, allow seniors and the infirm ahead of me in line, and otherwise show respect for my fellow humans.  My momma done brought me up that way and I’m all for the good Karma the pay-it-forward approach gleans.

I hope SEPTA starts to enforce some of their ‘passenger etiquette’ policies on the R7.  A good start would be an orderly disembarcation process: passengers should exit in the order in which they’re seated – those closest to the door go first, after anyone needing assistance, the infirm, etc.

Without order there is chaos, and when you couple that with a Northeast Philly atty-tood you get a primed-to-fire bully.  And one day someone will get hurt.


rottie_cartI am happy to report that since writing this, I’ve enjoyed more than six months of pleasant morning train rides to Philadelphia (although the ride home is still nightmarish and the Hags still abide), thanks to our wonderfully friendly and diligent conductor, Mike.  Now, if SEPTA would just hire more like him!  Sadly, Mike will be leaving us for the another train line run in March 2011…he will be missed.  I think it will then be time to start training my Rottweiler, Hurley, to cart my ass to work…

 

The Broad Street Bullies: a love story

schultzcover11275065355As a Philadelphian caught up in our 2010 Flyers’ hurtling toward a Stanley Cup dream, I am tugged by a bittersweet memory of my late brother Marty.  Marty lost a brief battle to cancer last February at the age of 46, and the light went out not only on a vibrant, fun-loving personality, but on one of Philadelphia’s most devoted fans.  He loved his sports, playing football and baseball with a mighty strength (despite a then-undiagnosed problem with fused ankle bones), and worshipping his beloved ‘Iggles’ (Eagles, for those unfamiliar with City of Brotherly Love patois), Phillies and Flyers.  A serious car accident his senior year at La Salle College High School curtailed any future collegiate athletic endeavors, but he could still be a fan.  For years he held season seats in the upper stratosphere of the old Veterans Stadium (for those who remember the precarious final concrete row at the Vet, Marty used to brag that he was right under the American flag, and when our national anthem was played, people would stand and salute him).

And when we both later migrated to Orlando in the 1980’s, Marty would regularly make the trip to Clearwater to watch his Phils warm up.  Hell, he even showed beleaguered Tampa Bay some love, understanding as only a Philly guy can that you’ve gotta love your team no matter what.

During the 1974-75 Flyers season, I was just starting high school; Marty was two years behind me.  We were caught up in Broad Street Bully fever along with the rest of a city that had seen hard knocks through an economic recession, the Great Suburban Migration (yeah, we were part of that) and racial tensions.  The rag-tag rejects of the elite, original NHL, cast off to the new expansion teams, perfectly represented the vibe of mid-70’s Philadelphia.  We didn’t care that they were Canadian.  They were rough-and-tough, missing most of their teeth, looked like they had been mauled by bears, and we loved them.  Marty was probably one of the more passionate fans of that era.  Along with a group of neighborhood friends (one of whom grew up to be 1988 U.S. Olympic hockey stand-out, and later NY Rangers goalie, Mike Richter) and with the help of a friend’s dad and his hose, they’d ice down a local church parking lot and stage some serious hockey competitions.

Most importantly, my brother remains the only individual I’ve known who could sing the entire 1974-75 Flyers’ fight song (sung to the tune of Yale’s): “Cheer, cheer for Bernie Parent…Eddie Van Impe and Andre Dupont! Bobby Clark can move that puck, so can Macleish and Kindrachuk…”  And he sang it with great gusto (he would also belt Kate Smith’s ‘God Bless America,’ the Flyers’ good-luck charm, on occasion and perhaps after a few a cold ones). Of course, he was also known to sing Bruce Springsteen and the Batman TV theme song in his sleep.  But that’s just Marty.

It’s not surprising that Marty would gravitate toward this most gritty, gutsy of sports.  Like me, he was born in Cork, Ireland and adopted to the U.S.  He was just genetically engineered for hard-scrabble sports. One of my mother’s earliest memories from when Marty first arrived in 1964 was a visit to Ocean City, NJ, where an elderly beachgoer, watching my two-year old brother play in the surf, commented to her, “That one’s going to be a football player.  Look at the shoulders on that little guy!”  He had that bang on.  Marty loved rough-and-tumble sports, especially the occasional Gaelic football games our Galway-born grandfather would take him to in New York.

So as I cheer this current crop of sleeker, better-protected and less pugilistic Flyers on to a Stanley Cup win, I just can’t help but remember Marty.  Several years before he died, after I’d moved back to the Philly area, I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Bob “The Hound” Kelly at a company wellness fair. The Hound was a damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead left-winger during those halcyon years and, like many of the original Broad Street Bullies, he remained tied to the Philadelphia area, giving thousands of hours to charity and delighting fans like me at local golf outings and other events.  These guys stay devoted to the area and the people who loved and supported them, even though hockey purists would have them painted as the nightmare of the 1970’s. Bob Kelly signed a player card for me, and of course, I had to get one signed for Marty as well, who had worshipped Kelly’s fightin’ spirit even beyond the more renowned donnybrooking skills of Dave ‘The Hammer’ Schultz.  Later that year, I presented Marty with the card on a visit to Orlando. He was as excited as the 12-year old schoolboy he’d been when he first lionized these warriors.

At Marty’s memorial service, I decorated a collage of photos with the requisite Eagles’, Phillies’ and Flyers’ logos.  Had he been buried instead of cremated, no doubt team jerseys from each and the treasured Bob Kelly card would’ve accompanied him (and maybe the old seat back from Connie Mack Stadium he and my cousins had procured).

I’m sure the seats are better now than 700-level Vet nosebleed section for Marty.  I’m sure there are no commercial breaks to interrupt the play, and there’s a steady stream of beer and Irish songs to accompany it. Cheer, cheer for our Flyers, Marty, and help them on to another year of glory.  I’ll be watching the series remembering you and your balls-out approach to life, just like those scrappy Canadians of 1974.

Oíche mhaith, codladh sám, mo bhráthair.

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.”

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