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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Caelainn Hogan

Caelainn Hogan 'This institution for ‘unmarried mothers’ is not part of some distant past - it closed in 2006'

Writer Caelainn Hogan has accessed files that give an insight into life at a Donegal mother-and-baby home known as The Castle.

IN A SMALL town in Donegal close to the border with Derry there is an abandoned building that was once a mother-and-baby home called the Castle.

The boarded-up house is visible from the road, set back from high gates in an overgrown field.

This institution where ‘unmarried mothers’ were sent is not part of some distant past. It only closed in 2006.

The two-storey house on the main street in Newtowncunningham is derelict, covered in sad attempts at graffiti. The HSE wanted to demolish the 18th-century building and build a new primary care centre, but the project stalled.

The Castle is the only institution under the remit of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes that operated officially as a mother and baby home after 1998, making it subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

The final report is due to be released at the end of this year. While writing my book, Republic of Shame, there was almost no public information about this institution.

Through a Freedom of Information request, it was revealed that Tusla the Child and Family Agency holds boxes of records from the Castle relating to admissions, discharges, adoptions and funding. I was told I was the first person to make a Freedom of Information request regarding these records.

Life at the Castle

A heavily redacted diary gave glimpses into life within The Castle. One person phoned to say “that the girl has refused to come and they were going to court to get an order”. ‘LIFE’ – the name of a Catholic crisis pregnancy agency – was written next to a note about a request to place a woman in the Castle.

In 1998, there were 12 admissions. In 1999, there were 13 admissions, and one baby died.

In 2000, a total of 15 women were admitted to the Castle, and in 2001 there were 10 admissions, including ‘3 not pregnant’. From the late nineties, the Castle was also intended to serve as a residential service for 12 to 18-year-olds. There were records of expenses for birthday presents, emergency clothing and school uniforms.

In Coyle’s pub, across the road from The Castle, a woman behind the bar remembered the mothers coming in when the pub was empty. “The girls would come in here at night just for a mineral,” she said. One was a teacher who had a friend in Belfast that sent postcards home for her, so that her family would believe she was working in Belfast, and not pregnant in a small town in Donegal.

The same system of secrecy used to be operated by nuns in the bigger institutions that closed in the late 1990s.

Cross-border pregnancy initiative

The Castle opened sometime in the 1980s, around the same year the Eighth Amendment was passed. Norah Doherty, a woman still living nearby, used to run The Castle as a “house parent”, employed by the local health board.

In her neutral-toned living room with daytime TV droning in the background, Doherty explained that the institution was founded as a cross-border initiative by the Catholic dioceses of Raphoe and Derry. Women were sent to hospital in Letterkenny or Derry to give birth.

The institution could accommodate around 14 women. Many were referred through the anti-abortion crisis pregnancy agencies Cura and Life, or by social workers. Today, the Life agency now operates as Anew, a ‘pro-life’ organisation still receiving State funding.

“It was people generally who wanted to get away from home, not because of their
parents but because of their neighbours,” Doherty explained. “Ireland being what it was.”

The women came from all over the country, including from across the border. “We had Protestant women as well . . . three or four,” she said.

In 1987, the year illegitimacy was legally abolished, it was reported in the Dáil that
seven mother-and-baby homes operated the year before, including the Castle, run by the North Western Health Board, housing eight mothers and babies. St Mura’s in Fahan, Co. Donegal, an adoption agency nearby run by the Sisters of Nazareth, housed 20 babies.

Women usually came to the Castle when they were around six months pregnant and could stay for six to eight weeks after they gave birth. “They wanted to keep their babies, but those circumstances . . . It just couldn’t happen,” Doherty said. Some were still studying for their college exams. They cooked their own meals. On Sundays, most went to Mass.

The women made weekly payments to be there and had their babies with them in their bedrooms. Some mothers brought older kids with them to the Castle, and they would attend the local school. Social workers visited at least once a week.

“They’d just come and cry,” Doherty remembered about the women trying to make an almost impossible decision about whether to keep their baby. “None of the girls who were there felt ashamed that they were pregnant,” Doherty stressed. The shame came from other people.

One woman took her baby son home to Sligo, but the local priest refused to baptise him because she was unmarried. She came all the way back to Newtowncunningham and the local priest did the baptism.

“Then you wonder why people have stopped going to church?” Doherty said.

X Case

A woman in her sixties, who asked to be called Mary, visited the Castle during the nineties as a volunteer with Cura, an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy organisation set up by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

Following the X Case ruling in 1992, constitutional amendments established that women had the legal right to travel to access legal abortion, as well as establishing the legality of providing information about abortion and referrals to abortion services elsewhere. It wasn’t unusual for women to contact crisis pregnancy agencies like Cura through the telephone directory, in the hope of getting information about ending a pregnancy, not realising Cura was anti-abortion.

Cura received hundreds of thousands of euro per year in government funding and only announced its closure in 2018, following the abortion referendum.

Opposition to women going abroad for abortions was a motivating factor for Cura’s referrals to The Castle. They were “protecting the child,” Mary said. One of the first women Mary met through Cura “came looking for an abortion”. Cura volunteers acted as “birthing partners” for the women and Mary said there were similar “homes” in Galway, and possibly Athlone.

The Castle closed in a similar way to the Tuam mother-and-baby home, decades before, on the heels of the local authority debating whether to invest to make the institution safe.

In the final years, the records on the Castle reveal the building in a state of disrepair, with damp and fire safety concerns. In 2003, a report noted a “major roof problem”, requiring up to €10,000 to repair. There were plans to relocate the service, “funded hopefully by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency with a voluntary organisation like St Mura’s Adoption Society and Cura adopting the project with the board as partner”.

Two years later, in 2005, an inspection found the roof still unfixed, with a hole now
allowing water into a bedroom at the back. One of the stairways was in a dangerous
condition. The building needed assessment ‘to confirm it is fit for human habitation’. Despite these problems, there were ‘4 girls’ admitted in 2005. In 2006, The Castle’s final year in operation, there was a single admission.

The mother-and-baby home system, operated in connection with agencies run by bishops and priests, lasted to the end of the Celtic Tiger years.

Mary, the volunteer, figured women who might have once contacted Cura now turn to ‘Mr Google’. In the first months of 2019, when abortion became legally accessible in Ireland for the first time, a website offering counselling and scans to women with unplanned pregnancies appeared in search results with the same name as the government’s information service, MyOptions.

It was traced to Eamon Murphy, an anti-choice campaigner involved in running unregulated crisis pregnancy agencies in Ireland, dating back to the nineties. The matter was later resolved in court.

Republic of Shame by Caelainn Hogan is out now.

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