On the night of our second St. Patrick’s Day in lockdown, the Abbey Theatre aired part one of a series entitled “Home”, a direct response to the report on the mother and baby homes in aid of Barnardos Post Adoption Service. Testimonies from women and their children who experienced first-hand horrors of these institutions, were read aloud by both actors and survivors, in a haunting performance. Their stories reveal a “culture of silence” in our society that still protects those responsible today.
Extracts were read by women of different ages and backgrounds, with beautiful performances by beloved Irish singer Mary Coughlan. Some other famous faces included Brenda Fricker, Ruth McCabe and Cathy Belton. Taken directly from the evidence of the report on the homes, the mothers described being “incarcerated” when they became pregnant outside of marriage. They suffered “psychological abuse” and were forced to do manual labour in the homes throughout their pregnancies. One woman even recounts going into labour while scrubbing floors.
“The shame these women were made to feel was palpable in each heartbreaking testimony.”
The shame these women were made to feel was palpable in each heartbreaking testimony. The nuns called it the “big mortal sin,” not only having had sex outside marriage, but becoming pregnant. When the time came for the baby to be delivered, women were offered no pain relief because, as one woman explained, “she had to pay for her sins”. With the youngest mothers just thirteen years old, they suffered unimaginable trauma. The accounts of neglect suffered by the children in the homes were the most harrowing. One mother described her baby as having suffered “starvation, or even criminal neglect”. Babies suffering from treatable illnesses were not given medical attention until it was too late. Buried in unmarked graves, their identity remains hidden from the world even now. One man, still searching for the remains of his sister, is “waiting three years for our government to exhume the remains in Tuam and find out if she is there.”
The children who survived were adopted at home in Ireland, or in the United States. Adoption was a common practice in the US, but it required copious formalities through the official system. In Ireland, “an orphan (could) be got…for the asking”. The homes were run for economic gain, with children essentially sold without the consent of their biological parents. One father said his child was “adopted without (his) consent and for no justifiable reason”. One survivor described it as “the widespread trafficking of babies by these nuns”.
Those adopted recounted its impact on their sense of identity and their ongoing search for answers. For some, their birth had never even been registered. For one adoptee, it was as if she were “dead and reading (her) life story”. Survivors, and adoptees alike, have struggled to get information from the HSE and Túsla, with one woman told it would take eight years to uncover any information. She believes that “they hope you will just give up and go away”.
“The resistance that survivors are met with is described as the ‘continuation of power dynamics’ that created this abusive system and the protection of those responsible. It is seen as a ‘criminal empire still protected in Ireland in 2021.’”
Adoptees revealed their arduous search for information and the silence they were met with, and still are today. One remarks, “my identity is a state secret”. Many feel their “identity and self worth has been continually and systematically undermined” by the institutions that have failed them since birth. Many feel their fundamental civic and human rights have been denied in an “attempt to silence the vulnerable”. Those affected demand answers and justice for the trauma they have experienced and for those who did not survive. For one survivor, her life was “completely and utterly devastated” by her experience in Bessborough, County Cork. The resistance that survivors are met with is described as the “continuation of power dynamics”, that created this abusive system and the protection of those responsible. It is seen as a “criminal empire still protected in Ireland in 2021”.
One woman asks, “Who is afraid of the written word? Who is afraid of the truth in black and white?” This fear of truth manifests itself in our cultural silence, our refusal to acknowledge the dark reality of our country’s all too recent history. For the mothers, they knew that “silence was what was expected”. Our silence, the inaccessibility of truth, perpetuates their trauma and prolongs their grief.
“The survivors are calling for an end to the silence and shame surrounding their experiences, and justice for the crimes committed by the state and the Catholic Church.”
The performance, currently available to watch on the Abbey Theatre’s YouTube channel, closes with a list of children who died in Tuam and Bessborough from 1920-1960. The effects of this abuse of power have been catastrophic and will continue to shape the lives of thousands going forward. The survivors are calling for an end to the silence and shame surrounding their experiences, and justice for the crimes committed by the state, and the Catholic Church. The Abbey’s compelling performance gives these written testimonies a voice, breaking the silence.