My sister came in and offered to hold the baby while I was getting dressed. So my sister is walking up and down with the baby and I turn around to get something off the bed. When I turn back, there’s a nurse leaving the room with my baby. I said to my sister “where’s she gone?”…. And she said “she’s gone”.
TWICE A RESIDENT of the country’s network of mother-and-baby homes, Kathy McMahon gave birth to her first child 40 years ago last month – but knew her daughter for just a few days before her baby was taken from her and put up for adoption.
A second child was born 18 months later – but despite the wishes and efforts of many around her, this time she fought the attempts to have her baby taken away, and struck out on her own.
She’s telling her story now because, she says, “the time’s right”. She says someone needs to stand up for the thousands of ‘First Mothers’ who gave birth in mother-and-baby homes all over the country.
“We’re not all very elderly ladies,” says Kathy.
“Some of us are in our forties, our fifties. We’re all in this together, and this Commission needs to listen to us now that something’s finally happening.”
Kathy, 58, is launching the ‘Voice of Irish First Mothers’ group today – a social media forum where women can connect, exchange information, and support each other. Members have been contacting each other in a closed group only until recently — but a second, public Facebook group is now online here.
She was also part of a group of survivors, campaigners and academics that met with Children’s Minister Charlie Flanagan during the week to give their input on the terms of the statutory inquiry into mother-and-baby homes set up in the wake of the Tuam controversy.
Kathy sat down with TheJournal.ie to tell her story…
“WHEN I BECAME pregnant with my first daughter I was about four months off the age of eighteen.
“By the time it became noticeable within the family that I was pregnant – because I hid it – I was just gone eighteen.”
This was January 1974. West Dublin.
Fine Gael’s Liam Cosgrave was Taoiseach. The Watergate scandal was rumbling on in the US. Mud’s ‘Tiger Feet’was number one in the charts.
My parents realised eventually…
“I suppose I hadn’t been feeling well. They got a doctor to come to the house. He saw me in my bedroom and he went downstairs.
“It was all hush, hush. He told them the news, and the following week I was taken to Dunboyne… the Good Shepherd Convent in Dunboyne.
The Good Shepherd, Dunboyne [ARA]
“It would have been late in the evening. January… Winter evenings.
“I was put into a room above the main convent the first night on my own. Then I was moved into a dormitory with three or four other girls.
“I suppose it would be a bit like a hostel – you know, kind of an atmosphere? – and personally I didn’t find it horrendous.
“There was a routine. You know, you got into the routine which was you were in bed before ten at night and you were up at eight in the morning and you had breakfast, and then you had chores to do.
We’re talking about 1974. A lot of the hardship and, you know, where you hear about the terrible beatings that women got? Many of us didn’t experience that violence.
Kathy, aged 17.
‘On my own’
“So… I was there from January until the end of May. When I went into labour I was brought to Holles Street Hospital by the nuns. They had a bus that used to take us in and out for visits.
“The nun dropped me off and I went through admissions, and I was brought to the delivery area, you know, the labour wards.
“I was brought to the labour ward and I was prepped – they did all the things they do when you’re in labour – and I was left on my own.
I do remember being on my own quite a lot – and being very frightened.
Holles Street Hospital [Photocall Ireland]
”I have vague memories of the birth because I was heavily drugged.
“I’ve no memory of being fixed up afterwards – but I woke up in a different bed in a cubicle. I remember it was dark and asking a nurse who came in was my baby alright. She told me not to worry about it, my baby was fine, and I think I slept till the next morning…
“I was in the hospital for about a week and within that week my visitors were my mam and my dad. They came to see me one evening. My father held her…
There was just a horrible shame. We were told by the nurses in the hospital not to talk too much, you know, if there was another mother there… That we weren’t to tell the other patients too much about ourselves … that that was private and just to keep it to ourselves that we didn’t have a husband.
“I asked could I have my baby baptised while we were in the hospital – and so we went to the chapel in the hospital and I had her baptised on my own. I gave her a name… I asked, you know, would they keep the name because for me it was a special name and I was told, yes, that she would.
“So the day I was being discharged my eldest sister was sent to pick me up, and I dressed my baby girl in clothes I had knitted for her.
“My sister came in and offered to hold the baby while I was getting dressed.
“So my sister is walking up and down with the baby and I turn around to get something off the bed. When I turn back, there’s a nurse leaving the room with my baby.
“I said to my sister ‘where’s she gone? … And she said ‘she’s gone’… She was as shocked as I was.
“That was it…
Signing the papers
Six weeks later, Kathy was brought to a solicitor’s office on O’Connell street to sign the adoption papers.
“I was quite sick and I don’t even remember sitting down, but I literally was told to put my signature on this paper.
“I had no concept of what I was doing. I had my father standing on one side of me, this legal person on the other side and my mother sitting at home. So I just signed it.
“But I wondered where my daughter was…
“I was told that my first daughter was going to a family of doctors … That I wasn’t to worry about her.
Skipping forward a year or so, Kathy was back living at home, working in an office in Crumlin and going out with friends “when I was allowed”.
She became pregnant again.
“I met a guy from Ballyfermot… I went out with him for about nine months and I ended up pregnant.”
But… When I went to tell him I was pregnant he came to tell me he’d met someone else.
“I suppose I got stroppy with him – well I’m pregnant so what are we going to do about it? And he, I suppose, was distraught. He was upset.
“He offered to pay for an abortion, and there was no way I was having an abortion… It wasn’t out of religious conviction or anything like that – I just wasn’t going to.
Once again, Kathy’s parents found out. She had long planned to go to England to stay with her brother, but remembers being told: “You’re staying here. You’re having your baby and its going for adoption.”
She was sent to Saint Patrick’s mother-and-baby home on the Navan Road. Conditions were better this time around…
We weren’t in dormitories. The original dormitory had been broken into cubicles and we were all in individual cubicles with a curtain across.
“My baby was born on the 9th of October,” Kathy recalls.
Now almost 20, and with some redundancy money from her filing job on the way, she told her social worker she was keeping her daughter this time around, and – fearing the baby could be put up for adoption in her absence – resisted an offer from her parents to pay for a week’s break in England.
“They tried to keep that pressure on that I needed a break. But I met another girl who came to St Pat’s after her baby was born and her and we got talking…
“She wanted to keep her baby too – so her and I started to plan. We bought the newspaper every evening and we went through reams and reams of ads and spent a fortune on phone calls trying to find a place to live.
“The nuns were not as bad by now, I have to say. We were called to the Reverend Mother’s office though… I was brought in and I was told ‘you give your baby up for adoption and you can do whatever the hell you like for Christmas and your baby will be happy’.
I said ‘no way’. The other girl said ‘no way’ – so when they realised that we weren’t going to give into pressure they actually were quite supportive of us.
Saint Patrick’s [ARA]
With the help of the nuns and the Saint Vincent de Paul, Kathy set herself up in a ground floor flat near the city centre.
“I actually moved in to Connaught Street in Phibsboro on 13 December, and I celebrated my 20th birthday on 5 December… So I was an adult.
Kathy moved on, and lived a normal, suburban existence in the following years and decades.
She married in 1979, and moved with her husband to Tallaght to raise their family: their two sons, and Kathy’s second daughter.
But the pain of what had happened in Dunboyne and Holles Street in 1974 never went away, she says – and in the late 1980s Kathy began to search in earnest for her first daughter.
It would turn out to be a long, frustrating process – complicated by the fact that she hadn’t told her husband about what had happened, and had no desire for him to find out.
“I went to meet a social worker at Barnardos… I was consoled that they were able to keep it low key.
“She was able to come back and say to me – ‘yes, your child is still alive’, and she told me the adoption agency involved in my first daughter’s adoption. That was St Brigid’s in the Coombe.
In the following years Kathy had “several secret phone calls” with St Brigid’s “and I was assured I could go down and anytime and drop in for a coffee”.
Those tentative steps towards reconnection would have to wait however… A fresh tragedy shattered Kathy’s family life, leaving her distraught and unable to carry on with the search for several years.
“I was possibly coming to the stage where I would tell my husband about my daughter… But my two sons and I were involved in a car accident…
“My eldest son… my third child… was killed…
“I ended up with massive injuries. My youngest child was badly injured.
“I put the search on the back-burner until I felt strong enough to be able to start back again.
“My grief for my dead son was also grief for my daughter.
“Because the way I feel about it is… I lost my daughter. I didn’t lose my son. I have memories with him. I don’t have memories with my daughter.
She spent the best part of two years in a wheelchair.
Another two, learning to walk again, unaided.
By the time Kathy returned to her quest, the advance of the internet meant the task of tracing her long-lost daughter had become quite a bit simpler.
She was introduced to a campaigner involved in the Adopted Persons’ Association, which had set up a database for parents and their grown-up children hoping to reconnect – and he guided her through the process.
“I said ‘oh my God I think I’ve got a match!’.
“He said to take a note of that and I’ll check it out when I go home.
“I said you don’t fucking get it… I said I found my daughter. He said ‘oh my God’.
“Anyway… He went back to the office and they set about confirming that, you know, it was a match.
“They contacted my daughter, and she wasn’t living in Ireland at the time. She was abroad. She wrote back to them and they contacted me and they confirmed that there is a match.
By now in her late 20s, Kathy’s daughter had also recently signed up to the database.
“I was asked what information do you want passed on… I said ‘everything’ – email address, phone number, address, name, photographs — whatever she wants give it to her.
“I was told then all of that has been passed and that it would take a bit of time before she contacted me.
Emails were sent back and forth and stories exchanged between the two women.
Both needed time to adjust to their new reality, Kathy says.
Eventually, a meeting was set up, and almost 30 years since she had last lain eyes on her child – four days before that daughter’s wedding – the pair met for the first time.
Kathy McMahon is founder of the newly-formed ‘Voice for First Mothers’ advocacy group, representing the views of around 50 women formerly resident in mother-and-baby homes. Amongst its aims, the group is campaigning to have full access granted to the records of the institutions, for mothers and adoptees.
First published at 8.25am
Read: It’s not just Tuam… Mother-and-baby probe needs to examine at least 100 institutions, Minister told