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'Accept responsibility and we might accept your apology': Survivors brace themselves for mother and baby home report

The long-awaited report will be published today – and survivors want “urgent” action on foot of it.

Mary Harney pictured in the Good Shepherd Industrial School in Cork, circa 1955.
Mary Harney pictured in the Good Shepherd Industrial School in Cork, circa 1955.
Image: Mary Harney

SURVIVORS HAVE SAID a State apology, redress and other supports must be given to them as a matter of urgency, ahead of the publication of the long-awaited final report by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation later today.

Mary Harney, who was born in the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork in 1949, said she and other survivors want an unreserved apology from the Taoiseach, followed up with action, rather than “platitudes”.

“I don’t want to hear any platitudes from him on Wednesday, things that we’ve heard about the Magdalene Laundries and other places. ‘Oh, we’re sorry, it shouldn’t have happened.’ Well, it did happen, and you were responsible.

“The Irish government was utterly and totally responsible, whether society was involved or whether the religious orders colluded, the responsibility is on their doorstep.

“I want him to say, ‘This was our fault.’

“You’ve heard from us for the last god knows how many years now, so accept responsibility and we might accept your apology,” Mary told TheJournal.ie.

She said the leak of some information from the report to the media at the weekend, before survivors had seen it, was upsetting but not surprising.

The Sunday Independent stated that the report will confirm that 9,000 children died in the 18 institutions investigated.

Mary said she was disappointed the leak happened, but not surprised.

“I was disappointed that it was leaked, but I don’t think anything surprises me anymore with this lot. We’ve been disappointed by the Department of Children as a collaborative forum since 2018, we’ve had nothing but disappointment from them.”

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman wrote to survivors’ groups on Sunday to say that he was “deeply angered” about the leak.

On Twitter, O’Gorman said he would seek an investigation into how the details became public.

Mary said “a verbal slap on the wrist” for whoever leaked the information doesn’t do much for survivors. 

Speaking later to Pat Kenny on Newstalk yesterday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said: “In the modern era, various government reports – aspects of them – get leaked. And we will certainly be addressing that issue as well.”

Mary said this response is not good enough. 

“Once again it’s almost like the confirmation that they’re continuing down the same old path that they’ve always gone down. ‘Oh well, there’s always leaks.’

“It’s that kind of that attitude of it’s not their be all and end all, but it’s a historic situation for us, but for them it’s just, ‘Oh well, here we go, another investigation.’”

In the same interview, Martin said the government’s response will be “comprehensive”. He added that it has “fallen to this generation” to deal with issues from “a dark chapter in our history”. 

Redress and rights

Mary last year shared her personal story with TheJournal.ie.

She spent the first two and a half years of her life at the home in Bessborough, with her mother, before being fostered to a family in Cork city.

She was neglected and abused in her foster home, and at the age of five was removed and sent to the Good Shepherd Industrial School in Sunday’s Well.

Mary told us how she and other children were regularly beaten “worked until our fingers bled“. 

She, like many children in industrial schools, was incorrectly told her mother was dead before she was eventually reunited with her. 

Mary said redress and allowing survivors access to their birth certs and medical records - among the recommendations set out by the Clann Project here - must happen as a matter of urgency.

“I think it does need to happen quickly in light of the aging population of survivors now. I think it is imperative that this does not drag on for years,” Mary told us, citing previous delays with paying redress to survivors of institutional abuse.

She said if the system to apply for redress is overly complicated it will be “re-traumatising” and cause unnecessary delays to the point that “many of us will be dead before redress is seen to be given”.

Mary believes the commission’s work will be “a wasted exercise” if survivors “do not get unfettered access to our birth certificates, our early-care documents, our medical records and everything they hold on us”.

“It’s all very well to say of course you have the right of access through Tusla, to request access. Yeah, we know we can request it. We have years of requesting, but not years of actually getting what we want.

“There are many more things [we should get] but for me the right to identity is a human right, it’s the most important thing.”

Illegal fostering

The Sunday Independent also reported that allegations that institutions were paid to arrange foreign adoptions proved impossible to prove or disprove by the commission.

Catherine Corless, whose research uncovered a mass burial site at a former home in Tuam, yesterday said she and others have evidence that some children were trafficked and “sold” to couples in the US. She said she hopes the final report reflects this.

Mary said if the commission “followed the money”, there would likely be confirmation of illegal adoptions and fostering.

She said she is concerned that the report may also “gloss over the entirely unregulated fostering of children” such as herself.

download (8) Mary Harney Source: Mary Harney

The final report, spanning just under 3,000 pages, will detail the experiences of women and children who lived in 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes – a sample of the overall number of homes – between 1922 and 1998.

Mary said the fact the commission only examined 18 homes means it will not give a full picture of how the system worked. She believes many children including herself were illegally fostered prior to the Adoption Act in 1952.

“I’m concerned that because they’re only looking at 14 institutions that they may not have looked at how the system worked in total, from before the Adoption Act.

“People say, ‘Oh, they were illegally adopted’. Before the Adoption Act came in in 1952, what happened to the children, where did they go, who was responsible?

“I was illegally fostered, I must have been because I cannot find any records on how I was handed over without my mother’s consent or without any paperwork at all. I’m not the only one that we’re talking about. From 1922 up until 1952, what happened to those children?”

Webinar

O’Gorman is set to bring a memo on the final report to Cabinet this morning, paving the way for its release on the department’s website in the afternoon.

An online briefing between O’Gorman, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and survivors will take place prior to the report’s publication.

Mary is not among the survivors to be invited to the webinar, but she said she will try to tune in. Some survivors who did receive the link are sharing it with others who did not.

Mary said there is confusion among survivors over how many of them will take part in the call and how they are being selected.

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A spokesperson for the department said those invited to the webinar “were drawn from the department’s own contact database of survivors/stakeholders”.

Mary said she was told on Friday that an abridged version of the final report would be posted out to her but she has yet to receive it.

Survivors will only have a couple of hours to read the report ahead of it being publicly released.

Mary said this is not enough time to read such a long document but that she and others will try to read as much of it as they can before it is made public this afternoon.

When asked about the process last week, a spokesperson for the Department of Children said the minister “recognises how important it is that former residents and their families are the first to hear about the report and to know how to access it”.

“Immediately following the Cabinet meeting, the minister and An Taoiseach will host an online presentation exclusively for former residents. In this way, survivors will be the first to hear key findings of the report and details of the initial government response.”

Counselling supports have been put in place for survivors. 

The National Counselling Service will provide therapy for survivors, either face-to-face, by telephone or online through secure video. Former residents may arrange counselling sessions by direct self-referral or by written referrals from health care professionals such as GPs.

An out-of-hours service, Connect Counselling, is also available to provide support and is currently providing an enhanced service from 6pm to 10pm seven days a week.

More information on the services can be read here.

We’ll be covering what’s in the final report today – on the site and on Twitter (follow @orlaryan  and @conalthomas for updates). If you or a relative spent time in a mother and baby home or county home and would like to share your experience, please email orla@thejournal.ie or conal@thejournal.ie.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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