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'My mother gave birth to three children in three mother and baby homes in three years'

Beth Wallace wants to commemorate her brother who died, aged five weeks, 49 years ago today.

Beth Wallace
Beth Wallace
Image: Emma Jervis Photography

BETH WALLACE IS one of three siblings born in mother and baby homes.

As is the case for many survivors, the last few weeks have been difficult for her.

Ireland is coming to terms with the content of the final report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, and the fact that audio recordings of around 550 witness testimonies were destroyed.

Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman today said there “may” be a way to retrieve the audio recordings, but this is yet to be confirmed.

Beth, too, has been dealing with the impact of recent developments, and how it has re-opened some deep wounds.

She was born in Denny House in Dublin in 1969. Her sister and brother were born in different mother and baby homes over the next couple of years.

Denny House – Ireland’s longest surviving mother and baby home – was founded in 1765 and closed in 1994.

The institution, formerly known as the Magdalen Asylum, housed Protestant women pre-1980, and women of all religions post-1980.

Beth, who turns 52 next month, was adopted at the age of two by a Protestant couple. 

As an adult, she found out that she had a brother, Stephen, who died from gastroenteritis and renal failure in 1972, when he was just five weeks old. Today is the 49th anniversary of his death.

Beth is sharing her story to highlight the ongoing impact being born in an institution has on people’s lives, survivors’ right to information, and their right to commemorate their relatives who died in the institutions.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Beth says: “I’m 52 my next birthday so this whole chapter of my life is something I’m very accustomed to (dealing with).

“What’s different this year for me is that it follows so closely on the heels of the release of the mother and baby home report and the fact that things are really in a very challenging place in terms of 550 witness testimonies, the audio recordings, having been destroyed.

“So this year feels different to other years yeah and it does feel more raw.”

‘Is the report of any value?’

Denny House was one of the 18 institutions examined by the commission. Beth gave written evidence about her experiences so was not affected by the deletion of the audio, but knows of others who were.

“In terms of 550 audio recordings being destroyed and people’s consent not being given for that, people’s consent not being sought, I’m at the point where it’s like, ‘Well actually what does this report mean at all? Is it of any value?”

Beth says another issue with the commission’s work is that it only examined 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes, meaning it paints an “incomplete” picture.

“From the very beginning, I think it was not going to be a satisfactory outcome for anybody. I think perhaps the general public didn’t really understand that at the time. Now people are saying, ‘Hang on a second here, there’s a lot of information missing still.’

And so when we talk about dead babies we’re not talking about 6,000, we’re not talking about 10,000, we’re probably talking about a lot more.

“We’re not talking about 57,000 babies being born in homes, we’re talking about a lot more. We’re not talking about 56,000 mothers. We’re talking about a lot more than that.”

The commission’s long-awaited final report – which can be read here – was published on 12 January.

The document confirmed that about 9,000 children died in the 18 homes under investigation from 1922 to 1988.

About 56,000 unmarried mothers and about 57,000 children in the mother and baby homes and county homes investigated by the Commission, the report notes. The greatest number of admissions was in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Beth says how people were treated in institutions like mother and baby homes is “Ireland’s Holocaust as far, as I’m concerned”.

“It’s nowhere near as big, of course it’s not, but it is our equivalent and it is a thread that weaves its way through every aspect of our life from our healthcare system to our education system, and it has to be remembered so it is not repeated.”

Three children in three years

Over the years, Beth has slowly pieced together information about her life and birth family.

She met her birth mother once, nearly 20 years ago, but the pair do not have a relationship due to a “lack of willingness” on her mother’s side.

Beth has made her peace with this, noting she does not know the extent of the “trauma” her birth mother went through.

Screenshot 2021-02-19 at 17.13.36 Information relating to previous address by county was available for 1,365 women in Denny House (96.4% of admissions, full list available in report) Source: Commission's final report

“I can appreciate the trauma. I don’t know all the details or all of the circumstances that led to her being in three different mother and baby homes giving birth to three different children in the space of three years.

“I don’t know all of that, but I can imagine that it’s an extremely deep trauma that she carries with her still. That must be the case to reject all three of us in different ways,” Beth says.

“Very often people, certainly birth mothers, I think, imagine ‘the life my child is going to have with their adoptive family is going to be better than it will be with me’.”

For some, this may be true. For others, it is not.

“Obviously I can’t know that, I have absolutely no way of knowing. But it wasn’t in general a happy childhood.”

Beth was sexually abused as a child, after she left the institution – something that resulted in two suicide attempts and drug addiction in later life.

Now a psychotherapist, Beth says she was “very vulnerable” and her abuser preyed on this fact.

“I was in and out of an orphanage the first year of my life, so I didn’t attach to anybody.

“It’s really well known in psychology research that children who don’t form strong attachments in the first year or two of their lives really are at a disadvantage in terms of how they relate to people for the rest of their lives, that is the foundation.”

Her abuser has since died.

She says she has been able to turn her life around through therapy and hard work over many years.

Access to information

Beth, like so many adopted people, has struggled for decades to get access to information about her birth family and her early years.

“One of the challenges for people, for survivors, is that we don’t have easy access to this sort of information. A lot of the information is sort of ‘gate kept’ for want for a better word by adoption agencies and legislation,” she says.

“It’s a very frustrating experience. I don’t know anybody else who was born in a mother baby home, or was adopted as a result of that, who has had very uncomplicated easy access to all their information at one time.”

Beth says some adopted people are “drip fed information” over many years – through adoption agencies, social workers and Freedom of Information requests. From this, they try to piece together their background.

In her early 30s she found out about her brother Stephen, and the fact he died when he was just a few weeks old. His death certificate lists the causes of death as gastroenteritis and renal failure.

“I don’t know a lot about him. I know the date of his birth, I know the date of his death. I know some small pieces of information about his funeral, and the cause of death. That’s pretty much it.”

Beth had hoped she and her birth mother may be able to form a relationship but, after they met about 18 years ago, she knew this would not happen.

Through her work as a psychotherapist, Beth supports a number of fellow adoptees and survivors of mother and baby homes.

“I think it’s very common for lots of people who have been adopted to have these ideas of what ‘quote unquote reunion’ is going to look like and feel like, be like. And in my experience, the reality is never like the fantasy we build up as children or adolescents.

“Of course, that’s not the case for every adoptee. It’s only for some, but there is a fantasy of ‘Oh, instantly we’ll feel a connection, and there will instantly be a bond, of course will have a really good relationship.’

“And that’s really generally not the case. I know very few people for whom that’s the case. The reality is very often a lot more disappointing, and can very often feel like a second rejection.”

Beth does not know who her birth father is as her birth mother did not want this information to be given to her.

Beth was told she and her two natural siblings have different birth fathers but she is not sure if this is the case as there are inconsistencies in the information she and her sister, who look very alike, have been given.

She says the difficulty in accessing information is “a particular sticking point” for her.

“According to the information that I was given by the adoption agency, my father wanted to keep me, he and his mother, so my grandmother wanted to keep me, but my birth mother refused permission for them to do that.

“She won’t give permission for me to have his name. So it’s only when she dies, that I will be able to access his name, and by that point he is more than likely going to be dead because he was a good bit older than her.

“It’s very possible that he’s already dead, he would be in his 80s now. So there’s a whole chapter, a whole side of my heritage, that I don’t have access to because she won’t give that information.”

Screenshot 2021-02-19 at 17.14.41 Information relating to 'exit pathways' was available for 949 children in Denny House (83.7% of births/admissions) Source: Commission's final report

Beth says her mother’s decision to place her for adoption was made 50 years ago in a “very different” Ireland.

“At the time when those decisions were made, Ireland was a very different country – I mean it’s almost unrecognisable. So I understand the context within which those decisions were made, but we no longer live in that country.”

She says she has “come to a place of peace of not having a relationship with my birth mother”, but that she has a right to know who her father is.

“He may not be the kind of person I actually want a relationship with, but that’s my decision to make.”

Beth says the notion that adopted people “can’t be trusted” with information and will just show up on people’s doorsteps is insulting.

“And I think to infantilise adoptees by saying we don’t trust you enough to be respectful with that information, we don’t trust you enough to show up at people’s doorsteps is incredibly insulting.”

A memorial for Stephen

Beth wants to erect a memorial for her brother, Stephen, at the unmarked grave in which he is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery in Dublin.

She found out where he was buried after being sent his death certificate.

“It’s a bit like doing an Inspector Clouseau on your own life – okay, we’ll rummage around and we’ll see what we can find in terms of birth certificates, death certificates, and that’s kind of joining the dots, following the trail of breadcrumbs.”

Stephen is buried with four other people in a so-called “pauper’s grave” – a burial place for people who were unclaimed or whose families could not afford to bury them.

Beth sought to buy the plot from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council a few years ago. In emails sent from the council to her in 2017 and 2018, and seen by TheJournal.ie, she was informed that she could purchase the plot for €800 as no one else had enquired about the grave.

However, when she sought to finalise purchase of the grave in November 2018 she was told that the council’s policy had since changed.

The email stated: “Unfortunately the Council has changed the policy since my last email regarding unpurchased graves in the North and South sections of the cemetery. It has been decided that unpurchased graves in these sections are not to be sold, there are plans to landscape these areas.”

At this time she was also told that she could not erect a headstone but could erect a plaque “up to 18″ x 12″ in size” on the grave.

“It should not be fixed to the grave, and there should be no foundation stone,” the email noted.

Beth believes this is not an appropriate solution as the grave is surrounded by fir trees and, as such, would quickly become covered and no longer be visible.

“I was permitted to put a plaque, flat on the ground, but people put that sort of ‘memorial’ on their pet’s graves not a baby’s grave. And the plaque would be covered in pine needles within one winter, Stephen deserves more than that.

“That is unacceptable for me. I don’t need it to be huge, but I do need it to be something that stands up.

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“I want to erect a memorial on it that is just like any other memorial you might see in the cemetery. So, I wasn’t looking for anything huge, looking for anything that would be inappropriate.”

Beth says so many babies and children who died in institutions are buried in mass graves or unmarked graves and forgotten about over time. She doesn’t want this to happen to Stephen.

“The point for me is that, you know, hundreds of years from now, people would be able to read the text on that, that they would be able to read the text that he was born, he lived, he died, he only lived five weeks and he was part of that mother and baby homes story. And that would be some way of remembrance.”

The four other people in the same plot as Stephen were buried from 1882 to 1937. Beth says she is happy to leave space on the headstone for the names of these people and, in the unlikely event that one of their relatives comes forward, she would liaise with them should any issues with the grave arise.

“I’m happy to leave space for any relatives of the others buried, I’m happy to name them if required, but what I want is a normal-sized headstone, a small one, that will not get lost in debris from the trees.”

TheJournal.ie contacted Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council for comment but had not received one at the time of publication.

Stephen and other children who died in the mother and baby homes inspired the Bábóg Project – where people make a doll for each baby that died in the institutions.

‘I’m thriving’ 

Beth says she separates her work and personal experience but, naturally, she has faced many of the same issues that her adopted clients do.

“A lot of the issues are very similar issues – around trust in intimate relationships, building relationships, self-esteem, sense of identity, all those are the kind of common issues that people are grappling with in therapy and counselling.”

She says the release of the commission’s report in January has been triggering for many people.

“The release of the report has brought emotional feelings to the surface that they didn’t expect, that they thought was maybe behind them. It’s bringing up painful conversations perhaps with their birth family, if they do have a relationship with them.

“It has resulted in the fracturing of some family relationships. In one family, a person was asked, ‘Are you not over this yet?’ So there’s a real lack of understanding about just how deeply this stuff affects people.

“Our identity is the foundation of who we are and to not know what that is, and to be able to put that into some kind of context, really is a very disconcerting place to be.”

Given her own experience, Beth says she has to be “extremely mindful of my own reactions and responses so that I’m not actually projecting mine onto my client’s experience”.

“If it does trigger something in me then I need to take that to my supervisor or I need to take that to the person that I am in therapy with immediately, so that it doesn’t negatively impact the person I’m working with.”

Beth says she spent most of her 20s in counselling “with an incredibly good therapist”.

“I feel very fortunate to have been able to work through a lot of the stuff that happened in my past. It’s by no mean all gone – I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to be fully completely healed from the traumatic experiences of their lives.

“But I feel very fortunate that I am the kind of person who chose that path, rather than burying this and ignoring it.”

Beth says when people hear what she has been through “they very often say things to me like, ‘Jesus, it’s amazing you’re still alive.’ And I agree”.

“The impact of being born in the mother and baby home, the adoption, the sexual abuse, all those things, did have incredibly large effects on me, two attempted suicides.

“But for me the message is that I’m a phenomenal woman. I have not just survived all of this, but I am a thriving human being. And that is something that I think is sometimes missing.

“No, we can never fully recover, but we can learn to live really well and we can learn to thrive, despite the traumas that we have experienced in life.”

Information on the support services available for mother and baby homes survivors can be read here.

Need additional help? Support is available:

  • Aware – 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Samaritans – 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Pieta House – 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland – 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 18)
  • Childline – 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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