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Philomena Lee (file photo)
Philomena Lee (file photo)
Image: Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images

Philomena Lee says Ireland must ensure mother and baby home 'atrocities' never happen again

Lee also said she is “dismayed” that some details from the Mother and Baby Homes report were leaked.
Jan 11th 2021, 12:37 PM 22,012 32

PHILOMENA LEE HAS said Ireland must ensure that the “atrocities” carried out at mother and baby homes and similar institutions are never repeated – saying the country owes it to both survivors and those who have died.

Lee was sent to Sean Ross Abbey mother and baby home in Co Tipperary in 1952 when she was pregnant and her son was later adopted without her consent.

Her life story was made into an award-winning film, Philomena, in 2013.

Speaking ahead of the publication of the final report tomorrow, Lee said the State should apologise “without reservation” and pay compensation to the families affected.

“For the purposes of healing, I believe it is essential that the Irish State and various churches involved in the enslavement of unmarried mothers and the trading of their children would apologise without reservation and would compensate the many generations of families who have suffered unbearable suffering and loss as a result of the State’s failure to recognise and honour the equality promised to all Irish citizens by the State’s founders.”

Lee said she and others have “waited decades for this moment – the moment when Ireland reveals how tens of thousands of unmarried mothers, such as I, and the tens of thousands of our beloved children, such as my dear son Anthony, were torn asunder, simply because we were unwed at the moment our children were born”.

She said she was “dismayed” that portions of the report were leaked to the press “ahead of the survivors having sight of it and digesting its findings”.

“This will undoubtedly add to the heartache and trauma of those directly affected and I am concerned for the welfare of all.”

Some of the details of the report were published yesterday by the Sunday Independent – including that 9,000 children died in the 18 institutions investigated.

Minister Roderic O’Gorman has said he was “deeply angered” about the fact details were leaked in advance. In correspondence seen by TheJournal.ie, O’Gorman said it was always his intention that survivors should hear the conclusions of the commission’s report first.

“My department will be engaging colleagues across government to ensure that no further information becomes public until the official publication on Tuesday,” he said yesterday.

In a statement Lee said she hopes the authors of the report recognise that “those of us who were detained against our wills in “Mother and Baby Homes” and gave birth there are not all of the mothers nor all of the children who have suffered”.

Lee noted that tens of thousands of people who went through State maternity hospitals, State children’s hospitals and various private institutions “suffered the same fate, the unlawful destruction of their families, through forced adoption, child trafficking, forced labour”.

“Irish people owe it to the memory of those mothers and children, who have died, without knowing the truth and to resolve that such atrocities will never be allowed to happen again,” she stated.

Speaking on Today with Claire Byrne, historian Catherine Corless said the publication of the report “was the one chance to put [survivors] to the front” but the leak took that away from them.

“This is what survivors have had to live with all their lives, they’re treated as second-class citizens.”

She said situations like this makes survivors feel “that they’re not important, it doesn’t matter, they’re only illegitimate children”.

“The government has responsibility and can change that and just do something, just show that they are important.”

The commission was set up following claims that up to 800 babies were interred in an unmarked mass grave at a former Bon Secours home in Tuam, Co Galway – following on from extensive research carried out by Corless.

Excavations carried out between November 2016 and February 2017 found a significant quantity of human remains, aged from 35 foetal weeks to two to three years, interred in a vault on the site.

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

Corless 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.

Forced adoptions

Some members of the Collaborative Forum – a group of Mother and Baby Home, County Home and Bethany Home survivors appointed by the government in 2018 to advise the Department of Children on issues of concern to survivors – have also expressed their anger at the leak.

A statement from the group notes: “Of further concern is the tone and content of the article, in the Sunday Independent, which highlights the more trivial aspects of how mothers and their children were treated in the institutions under investigation, e.g. focusing on mothers being forced to clean floors rather on the fact that their children were forcibly and illegally taken for the Irish adoption industry, which included the trafficking of children across international borders to the USA and Northern Ireland in particular.”

Forum member Susan Lohan, who chaired the sub-committee on ‘Identity and Information’ said the group hopes the detailed recommendations it made in an unpublished 2018 report “would now be given serious consideration by government, without any further delay”.

Key amongst the recommendations was for all survivors to be given “unfettered access to their personal information, their birth certs, their files and early care records in a newly established dedicated archive, which would also act as a national education centre, lest we forget”, the statement notes.

The group also recommended that survivors would receive “an enhanced medical card and be given access to comprehensive health screening, funded by the Irish State”. Both regional and national memorial sites were recommended where annual memorial services could take place.

‘Punishment for my promiscuity’

Recalling her own experience at Sean Ross Abbey, Lee said: “I endured a very painful, breech birth and was taunted by the nuns, who said that my pain was a punishment for my promiscuity; they even told the other girls to get down on their knees and pray for me as I might not survive.”

She said her son Anthony, now known as Michael Hess, “was selected for trafficking to America without my knowledge or consent”.

“Shortly after his third birthday, he was suddenly taken by the nuns along with his best friend, Mary, and sent off to Shannon Airport to fly to the US for a new life, with strangers, when he had never before left my side or even the grounds of Sean Ross Abbey.”

She said her grief was “devastating”.

“It broke my heart all over again when I discovered that Anthony had returned many times to Sean Ross Abbey, looking for word of me, only to be told by the nuns that I could not be traced and that in any case, I had abandoned him when he was a few days old…

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“Anthony would ultimately die, without hearing from the nuns that they knew exactly where I was was and most cruelly, without telling him, that he and I had lived together for three years, that I had loved him and without telling him that it was my dearest wish to find him, hold him and tell him how much I loved him.

“I also wanted this for my daughter Jane and my son Kevin, who were desperate to know their elder brother.”

Lee and her family worked with the Adoption Rights Alliance to find out information about Anthony, and established the Philomena Project in 2014 to help other families affected.

“The main goals of the project are to empower the mothers and children so cruelly separated, to discover the truth about what happened to them and to hold to account the Irish State and other agents, who brought about this cruellest of separations,” Lee said.

Counselling supports have also 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 on Tuesday – on the site and on Twitter (follow @orlaryan  and @conalthomas for updates). If you 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.

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Órla Ryan

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