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'Witnesses telling their stories, while they're still alive, is very powerful'

Stolen, a new documentary, explores mother and baby homes in Ireland.

STOLEN, A DOCUMENTARY set to premiere in Dublin next week, opens with an interview with Michael Donovan, who was a gardener at Sean Ross Abbey from 1988 to 1991.

A mother and baby home operated at the site in Roscrea in county Tipperary from 1931 to 1969. Records show that 1,090 children born in or admitted to Sean Ross died in infancy or early childhood.

In the opening scenes of Stolen, Donovan recalls how small bones were found at the site in the 1980s.

md Michael Donovan Stolen Stolen

“The nuns had sent down orders for the plot to be cleaned up and the tractor was brought in. We brought the tractor in from here, reversed it up to the corner, they dropped down the plough and turned over the sod and I noticed lots of small bones.

“10 inches, 12 inches, deep – that was shallow enough – but I did notice lots of small, small bones.

“This is a small enough plot and there are 1,090 babies still missing, and we don’t believe they’re all in this angels’ plot, we believe that they’re probably next door, beside this plot itself,” Donovan said.

“There’s lots of unanswered questions and we’d like to get answers to them,” he added.

The burial place of more than 1,000 babies who died in Sean Ross is unknown, as is the burial place of over 850 babies who died at Bessborough mother and baby institution. However, there are currently no plans to excavate either site.

Instead, the Government’s focus to date has been largely on Tuam – the site of another former mother and baby institution where it’s believed around 800 babies and young children could be buried.

Work on the excavation process at Tuam is set to finally begin in the coming months.


It was Catherine Corless’ research that uncovered the situation in Tuam, led to a Commission of Investigation being established and, indeed, inspired Margo Harkin to make Stolen.

The director is a founding member of Derry Film & Video and is known for her drama Hush-a-Bye Baby and the documentary Bloody Sunday: A Derry Diary.

Speaking to The Journal about Stolen, Harkin said Corless is “amazing”, adding: “She just stuck it out and has persisted, and she’s been proven right.”

Screenshot 2022-11-25 11.35.00 Catherine Corless pictured at the site of the former mother and baby institution in Tuam Órla Ryan Órla Ryan

Harkin met Corless and decided to make a documentary that explores the stories of people who passed through mother and baby institutions.

“At that stage, I didn’t even know how many people were affected by this issue. And I’ve since discovered there are thousands and thousands of people.

“Practically anybody you might speak to will begin to tell you a story about somebody they know who either had been adopted or had been in a mother and baby home.

“So it is an issue that affects so many people. I’m a filmmaker, so I thought this is my way to make a contribution to allow people the chance to express their views, to tell us their stories.

There’s nothing approaching the power of witnesses, while they’re still alive, being given the right to tell their story first-hand. So it’s that idea of trying to get it on record so that it’s there forever and always but, at the same time, you know you’re only scratching the surface.

Harkin believes sites other than Tuam should also be excavated given the fact so many children’s remains are unaccounted for.

“I’m not entirely sure why they have said they’re going to concentrate on Tuam, maybe it’s because it’s the site they know most about at the minute. I’m not sure if the door is totally closed on [excavating] other sites, I would hope not.

“Because I think it’s not going to go away, there are people still alive who want to know where their families are buried. So, they should just take the bull by the horns and be clear with people about what it is they’re going to do.

“I know the [Burials Act] specifically refers to Tuam and that took a long fight. We’ve waited a long time to hear that it’s finally going to happen. And I know they’re appointing somebody to oversee the setting up of it, but it’s very slow and dragging on. I’m sure people are incredibly frustrated.”

The Commission of Investigation focused on 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes, a fraction of the overall number of institutions that operated in Ireland in the 20th century. Around 9,000 children died in these particular institutions, the inquiry found. 

Harkin believes there could well be other institutions that did not keep burial records.

“God knows what’s happened in [these institutions]. There could be similar evidence to come out about a lack of burial records in those places as well. There’s a lot to be answered yet,” she said.

Family separation

Tens of thousands of women and girls who became pregnant outside marriage were sent to mother and baby homes, usually to give birth in secret.

Their children were generally adopted – at times without their consent, fostered, or sent to an industrial school.

Maria Arbuckle’s son Paul was adopted in 1982. She was allowed to feed Paul when he was a newborn in St Patrick’s mother and baby home in Dublin, but was told not to bond with him.

“I remember having to go up at feeding times to feed him, but we weren’t allowed to bond with them, you had to go in, do the job and go back out again. If you were even seen bent over the baby you were told, ‘No, he’s not yours, no bonding’,” she says in Stolen.

Screenshot 2023-02-20 17.17.30 Maria Arbuckle pictured with her son Paul when he was a newborn in 1982 Maria Arbuckle Maria Arbuckle

Arbuckle’s story also features in the Redacted Lives podcast.

Paul, who now goes by a different name, is ineligible for redress as he spent less than six months in St Patrick’s institution.


Stolen speaks to several survivors, relatives and experts to explore how the mother and baby home system operated and the ongoing impact it has on so many people’s lives today.

One of those people is Michael O’Flaherty who was born in the Tuam institution in 1948 before being boarded out, a precursor to fostering. He said his foster mother was kind but was regularly beaten up by his foster father.

Recalling this time, O’Flaherty said: “I don’t know how I survived.”

He was removed from this particular house by social services, before being sent to a farm where he was forced to work almost every day and rarely allowed to go to school.

“There has to be a better life than this,” he recalled thinking at the time.

mof Michael O'Flaherty Stolen Stolen

Harkin said the fact that people like O’Flaherty are excluded from the Government’s planned redress scheme seems “almost criminal”.

“I feel it’s a complete dereliction of duty that they’re left out, it doesn’t make any sense to me. I very much agree with the families. I think it’s nonsense, really. The conditions they’ve come up with for eligibility don’t make sense.

“I know that people are really, really unhappy with it. And the whole thing that you have to have been in a home for six months just seems so arbitrary.”

The controversial redress scheme passed through the Dáil on Wednesday after a number of heated debates on the issue.

Around 34,000 people will be eligible to apply for redress under the scheme, which is estimated to cost around €800 million. However, around 24,000 survivors are excluded from the scheme.

It doesn’t include people who spent less than six months in an institution as a child.

The scheme also does not specifically cater to people who were boarded out as children; people who were subjected to vaccine trials; and people who experienced racism or other discrimination in the system.

There have been repeated calls, nationally and internationally, for the scheme to be extended.

‘Swept under the carpet’

Many experts have predicted that the Government will face future legal challenges from people who are excluded from the scheme.

Harkin agrees, telling us: “If the Government thinks they’re going to get away with it and wipe it all under the carpet, they’ll soon find out [that they won't].”

The filmmaker also said it’s essential that the religious orders who ran many of the institutions pay towards the scheme.

The Government is currently in talks with orders in a bid to get them to contribute. However, Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman previously told The Journal he does not have the power to compel orders to pay.

Harkin said it’s clear that religious orders have assets and they should contribute. 

“They should play their part. I think that negotiating with them to kind of make it as amenable as possible to the Church is just a complete avoidance of justice, as far as I’m concerned,” she said.

“It may have been a shared responsibility with the State and others at the time, but they have the larger part of responsibility. They doled out the cruelty, they doled out the separation, they doled out the disruption.

“They ruined people’s lives, they absolutely did so they should absolutely pay, they should be made to pay,” Harkin stated.

100622CH210 Margo Harkin Chris Hill c / o Margo Harkin Chris Hill c / o Margo Harkin / o Margo Harkin

The filmmaker hopes that Stolen will join the growing number of documentaries, podcasts and books seeking to make the public aware of the reality of life in mother and baby homes, and the ongoing impact of family separation and people’s struggles to get access to their records.

“The stories are fascinating and things I’d never heard before or exposed. And that’s what you need to do, you need to go right to the source and let people themselves tell their story,” Harkin said.

“It’s all very important and I just do hope that people will pay attention, that people will feel a level of anger about it.

“Sometimes they just don’t have the information because the biggest aspect of all of this has been the whole climate of silence that surrounded it, and acceptance – people thinking, ‘it’s just the way things were’.

“It is the way things were, but it’s not the way it should be. We need to make changes, we need to acknowledge what happened and we need to support those people who’ve suffered,” she added.

Stolen is a co-production between Harkin’s company Besom Productions (based in Derry) and Wildfire Films (based in Dublin). Martha O’Neill is the producer and Rory Lorton is the associate producer. The documentary will premiere at the Light House Cinema as part of the Dublin International Film Festival at 6pm on Thursday, 2 March. Ticket information here.