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Brian Lawless

Fionn Davenport I was born in a mother and baby home - we have a right to our past

Writer Fionn Davenport says the government’s rushing through of legislation last night condemns survivors of mother and baby homes to 30 more years of darkness.

I WAS IN my mid-30s when I discovered the story of my birth. Until then, I worked off a version that had been told to me when I was a little boy, old enough to understand what adoption meant.

The story was pretty straightforward. My birth mother was very young and despite her best efforts she just wasn’t in a place to give me the kind of life she wanted to.

I was adopted at the age of three months and presented to my new parents in the family room of the Catholic Protection & Rescue Society of Ireland on Dublin’s South Anne Street.    

It’s a nice story, expedient in its simplicity and comforting in its lack of ambiguity. 

What was missing from the story was that I was born in St Patrick’s mother-and-baby home on the Navan Road, the largest such institution in the state.

My then 19-year-old birth mother, Jane, arrived there, six months pregnant, in January 1968 because she had nowhere else to go.  

Also missing from the story was that just after I was born, Jane had a change of heart and wanted to keep me but the nuns told her it was impossible because she’d signed a document giving me up for adoption. 

This was a cruel and terrible lie. The 1952 Adoption Act specified that her consent was not valid “unless it is given after the child has attained the age of six months.” Instead, she was cynically – tragically – denied.    

The truth, delayed

I learnt these and other details in adulthood after Jane had tracked me down and we were re-introduced – after several months of exchanging carefully worded letters – in the family room of the Catholic Protection & Rescue Society of Ireland, which in the late 1990s was rebranded as the much friendlier-sounding Cúnamh, the Irish for ‘assistance.’ 

Reunions are not easy, not even the easy ones. At the root of every adoption is an irreparable sense of loss – a parent, a child, a bond.

That bond is established through the senses at birth, a mammalian instinct that automatically recognises a mother’s smell and sound. Take it away and a baby is disoriented and instinctively all at sea, forcing it to scramble for a coping strategy that becomes enmeshed in its neurological system.

It is primarily characterised by a deeply embedded feeling of mistrust: I won’t let anyone get too close in case they leave me, or I’ll cling on for dear life to make sure they don’t. Either way, that feeling of mistrust will be a factor in every future relationship. 

The loss provoked by adoption is a primal wound that is not easily healed. And in Ireland, for much of the last century that wound was infected by the shame and secrecy that enveloped the practice, consequences of uncompromising Catholic principles that underpinned a singularly patriarchal society.

The cruel doctrine of ‘sin’

Unwed pregnancies were condemned as the moral failing of fallen women and entirely deserving of public rebuke. 

But pregnant girls weren’t just guilty of a terrible sin: they passed the seed of their transgression onto their illegitimate progeny, condemning them in turn to a life of depravity. This grotesque ideology masquerading as a moral code persisted until the 1950s and beyond.

By the time I was born the burden of censure on the women who passed through the homes had lessened, but there was no doubt they were still guilty of an intolerable sin, and as such were to be denied agency or any real choice. 

During her stay in St Patrick’s, Jane was put to work like all the other girls, but her English accent – she spent much of her childhood in Lancashire – meant the nuns spared her the for-profit laundry and tasked her with taking care of babies in the nursery.

Not her own, though: before adoptions were finalised, contact between mother and baby was strictly controlled and limited to a couple of bottle feeds a day – no breastfeeding was allowed.

The nuns played the role of a vengeful god: you have made a terrible mistake, but you should be grateful that we’re here to fix it for you. 

A shameful stance in 2020

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and certain related matters (to give it its proper title) has spent the last six years piecing together the painful, complex story of St Patrick’s and thirteen other similar institutions throughout the country. 

For the first time, the state invited mothers and children to bear official witness to their experiences and record them as a matter of fact. For the first time, a light was shone on a system that for over a century thrived in the shadows, out of public view. 

Even accounting for some of the troubling issues that beset the commission’s work – the delays by Tusla and the HSE to provide key documentation; the failure to fulfil a promise to bring UN rapporteurs to oversee justice for survivors; the government’s refusal to publish a 90-page report produced by the Collaborative Forum on Mother and Baby Homes (which thought separate to the commission was set up by the government) – the final document, rumoured to be over 4000 pages long, is sure to be an incredibly important one. 

And yet. 

News that the archive of the report will have to be sealed for 30 years in accordance with the 2004 Commissions of Investigation Act is a terrible blow to those who have waited a lifetime for redress.

Instead of being able to access their own records freely through the National Archives, victims must submit their requests through Tusla, putting their fate in the hands of a social worker who has the power to delay or deny that request. 

The failure to publish the archive also means that nobody will be able to question the conclusions of the commission, let alone begin a process that would hold wrongdoers to account – morally or legally. 

In rushing through this bill, the government consulted none of the interested parties, and despite protestations of sympathy by minister Roderic O’Gorman, was clearly not interested in finding a solution that would respect the rights of victims to have their stories told in the open while protecting the anonymity of those who wish to remain so is a profoundly troubling one. 

How can you repair the damage of the past if it remains shrouded in secrecy? And more worrying still, how can you possibly guarantee that it will never happen again? 

In the meantime, the victims of the mother-and-baby homes are condemned to 30 more years of darkness. For many, though, time will run out altogether. For Jane, perhaps even for me. 

Fionn Davenport is a travel writer and broadcaster. He’s the author of dozens of guidebooks for Lonely Planet, including Dublin and Ireland, and he has had a varied broadcasting career, ranging from presenting a variety of culture shows for Newstalk and RTE to being a regular travel contributor on the Claire Byrne Show on RTÉ Radio 1.  Find Fionn on Twitter and Facebook.

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