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'The Irish Handmaid's Tale': Mother and Baby Home survivor says reality was worse than fiction

“We were just like machines for them, they definitely dehumanised us.”

Terri Harrison pictured with a photo of her baby Niall, at a protest outside Leinster House in 2014.
Terri Harrison pictured with a photo of her baby Niall, at a protest outside Leinster House in 2014.
Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

THE WAY SURVIVORS of mother and baby homes have been treated by the Catholic Church and successive governments in Ireland amounts to “abuse of the abused”, one woman has said.

Terri Harrison was among the survivors to give testimony to the Investigation Committee of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

Speaking to The Journal, Terri said that recalling the trauma she suffered when coerced into giving her son up for adoption, and her ongoing search for him, while giving evidence to the Commission was incredibly difficult.

Terri gave birth to a son, Niall, in the St Patrick’s institution on the Navan Road in Dublin in 1973. She 18 years old at the time and wanted to to keep her baby.

She moved to England and had planned to raise her child there but a religious organisation found her and forced her to come back to Ireland to give birth here. Now 66, she is still trying to find her son.

Terri has been advocating for survivors for years and, as she was involved in campaigning, was aware that two committees were gathering testimony for the Commission: the Investigation Committee and the Confidential Committee.

Witnesses who gave evidence to the Investigation Committee had to swear that the evidence they gave was true, and their claims were questioned in a more rigorous manner. The main purpose of the Confidential Committee was “to listen to the experiences” of survivors “in a sympathetic atmosphere”.

Terri said she encouraged women to apply to give testimony via the Investigation Committee if they felt able to do so. She said she offered to accompany some other survivors to their meetings with the commissioners, for moral support, but was told this couldn’t be facilitated.

In one particular case, Terri sat in a different room while a friend of hers, a woman in her late 80s, gave testimony about her experience.

“A different woman came out of that room,” Terri said, noting how difficult the experience was for the other survivor.

“Women were told ‘It wouldn’t be in your best interest to go to the Investigation Committee, that’s too harsh for you, you’re better off just coming in and telling us your story. You don’t want to hurt yourself more again, that would be awful for you.’.”

Terri said women should have been given the option of attending either committee, but many were not aware that the Investigation Committee even existed. Campaigners such as the Clann Project have for years raised concerns that the Confidential Committee was the only one being advertised.

Some people have said that cross-examination was too harsh and would re-traumatise the women. But the women lived it – of course they’re going to be retraumatised, whether they’re having tea and biscuits and telling you or whether you’re cross-examining them. Either way they’re going to be re-traumatised.

Some survivors chose to go to the less adversarial Confidential Committee, while others were told they were not eligible for the Investigation Committee, or did not know they had a choice.

Sixty-four survivors gave evidence to the Investigation Committee, whereas over 500 survivors gave evidence via the Confidential Committee. Just 19 people applied directly to give evidence to the Investigation Committee, and it’s not clear how the other witnesses were chosen.

Terri said her own interview with the Investigation Committee lasted over three hours. She said she waived the right to have a solicitor present.

“I was told and advised that I could bring a solicitor in with me, but I waived on the grounds that not every person would have a solicitor. I was supporting other women and I thought it would be unfair for me to use anything that others didn’t have access to.

“I didn’t want anybody in the room either – my husband had offered to come in with me, but that could have made me stop [saying certain things] in order to think of his feelings. I said that to a lot of women – please don’t bring someone that really loves you and you love them, because it would be unfair to both you and to them.”

Some women chose to have a partner or relative in the room with them for moral support, while others chose to go in alone.

Terri said it was difficult to relive her past while being questioned by the Commission but she also felt as though someone was “finally” asking “the frightened 18-year-old” what had happened to her.

My cross-examination was harsh and long, but I welcomed every question that was fired at me because I actually believed ‘My God, finally, finally somebody is asking the right questions’. I thought they were going ask the same questions of everybody.

Terri didn’t swear on a bible before giving evidence, instead she affirmed an oath (an option for non-religious people).

“They had put a bible in front of me and I just pushed it away with my hand and said ‘I’d prefer if you just removed that thing’. It was just too much, the Church has caused so much pain and hurt.”

When the Commission was being set up six years ago, Terri was among those to raise concerns about the Terms of Reference under which it would operate. She said her worst fears were confirmed when the final report was published in January and “to my horror, I realised the whole thing was highly skewed towards finding the social history”.

At a controversial Oxford University seminar earlier this month, one of the commissioners, Professor Mary Daly, stressed on numerous occasions that the Commission’s hands were tied by the Terms of Reference it had to operate under, as well as the “looming” threat of legal action from the religious orders in question.

Daly acknowledged that the personal testimonies of hundreds of survivors given to the Confidential Committee were not given the same weight as the testimonies given to the Investigation Committee.

‘Kidnapped from London’

Terri was living in London when she was pregnant – she wanted to start a new life with her child and knew he would likely be taken from her if she stayed in Ireland.

“I really believed that I had [got away]. I was actually very happy in London, I had a lovely job, I was going to keep my child.

“Then I just vanished off the face of the earth, I just didn’t report for work one day. How horrible is that? I don’t know what my boss thought.”

During a hospital appointment in London, Terri was asked questions by a woman she believed worked for the hospital, later finding out that she worked for a Catholic adoption society. Her whereabouts were disclosed and Terri said she was essentially kidnapped by a priest and forced onto a plane back to Ireland.

“When that woman came to me in the hospital in London, I thought she was working for the hospital, that she was a hospital administrator. In fact she worked for the Catholic Crusade of Rescue.

“Her job was to find out if my child was an Irish child and even though I told her my baby’s daddy was from Leeds and he was an Englishman, she still reported me as carrying an Irish baby. I didn’t know when I was giving her all that information about what she was going to do with it.”

She said one of the first recollections she told the Commission was about the scuffle she had with the priest at Heathrow Airport.

“One thing that jumped out in my memory – and I will take it to my dying day – was how the man, the priest, was allowed to go through customs with me. I’d never been on a plane in my life before, I went to England on a boat.

I remember the way he manhandled me and the air hostesses at the top of the steps just stared down at me, they never moved, they never remarked. Finally he was able to get my grip off the rails.

“I turned around and I said to the barrister [at the Investigation Committee] that it was the worst time of my life – I still have a thing about flying.”

Her glasses were cracked in the struggle and she “was going around with blurred vision for a long time” despite asking to see an optician.

Terri never found out who paid for the plane ticket back to Ireland, noting “I’d love to know who it was”.

“I was abducted from London, put on the plane and brought back to this country and imprisoned in Bessborough and then I escaped and got put into Pat’s,” she recalled.

‘Handmaid’s Tale’

Terri said the way women and girls were treated in Ireland at the time was comparable to the women in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale – the main character is part of a group known as “handmaids”, women who are forcibly assigned to produce children for the ruling class of men.

She noted there are, of course, differences to the reality she and others experienced, but the general idea of females being vessels whose primary goal was to reproduce and, if unmarried, give that baby away to a married couple, is similar.

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In Terri’s experience, nuns “dehumanised” women like her.

We were just like machines for them, they definitely dehumanised us. I think most of the nuns themselves were able to distance themselves, they had nieces and nephews and babies being born in their families.

“I don’t know they could operate like that. The only thing I could think of was that they didn’t see us as humans, as the same as their nieces or their sisters. It’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s the truth.

“It’s the Irish Handmaid’s Tale, there’s a slight difference alright, but it’s the same principle.”

Terri said the immensely powerful role the Catholic Church played in Irish society for so long – including its influence on the Constitution and legislation for decades – resulted in women being seen as “second-class citizens”.

“They genuinely saw women as subordinates, we were owned by our husbands and our fathers. We weren’t allowed to work without our husband’s permission. There were so many ways in which we were not equal.

“They didn’t see a problem with making a woman spend her whole life in a Magdalene Laundry.

People didn’t see us as a young girl that stands up beside them at the bus stop every day or the girl who hands them their bar of chocolate from behind the counter every day, the girl that smiles at them on the bus, whatever, their nice neighbour, their cousin, the niece, the sister.

“All of a sudden, a girl would just vanish and nobody said, ‘Oh my god, where did she go?’”

Terri went on to get married and have three other children. Her efforts to find her eldest son, Niall, to date have been unsuccessful.

Over four decades after his birth, she is still hopeful she may one day find him. 

“I never give up [on finding him]. No matter what they did to my son – and they took him, they changed his name, they told him lies, I know that – they can’t take the genes out of him. It’s the one thing they can’t do. He’ll always be my son.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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