From top: Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland Eamon Martin outside the offices of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Maynooth, Co Kildare, last month, as the details are published for the the pastoral visit of Pope Francis; Tuam survivor Peter Mulryan and historian Catherine Corless; Ciaran Tierney
The only surprise about the revelation that survivors of institutions and clerical sex abuse are planning to protest during the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland in August is that anybody might be surprised.
There are thousands of people across Ireland, the UK, the USA, and Canada who are waking up to the injustice inflicted upon them and their families. They are determined not to be silenced anymore.
They want the Catholic Church to face up to the abuse inflicted on young mothers and their children in both Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes throughout much of the 20th century. As far as many of them are concerned, the religious orders have never faced up to their crimes.
All across Ireland, hundreds of people believe they may have uncles, aunts, brothers, or sisters scattered across the globe.
They believe they have close relatives in cities such as Boston, Chicago, or New York who have no idea of their own true identities, as they were adopted out, illegally and for cash, by nuns whose only concern was that they ended up in good Catholic homes.
The history of Catholic institutions in Ireland in the 20th century is one of physical and emotional abuse, shame, judgement, and even baby trafficking and child abduction, as many “illegitimate” children were forcibly taken from their traumatised mothers after they were transferred to institutions all across the country.
This is not ancient history, as we saw in the emotional but wonderful scenes in Dublin two weeks ago when more than 200 former residents of Magdalene Laundries were honoured in public for the first time.
Many of them flew home from the US and the UK, because the shame of their incarceration – or giving birth outside marriage – ensured they could never return to the towns or villages they came from.
The last Magdalene Laundry only closed down in 1996. Some of the women were so institutionalised after spending three decades in these harsh institutions that they did not wish to leave even when presented with the opportunity to do so. They had given up the will to live independent lives.
The youngest woman to have given birth in a laundry is still only 40 years old. These are real, living, breathing people and now they want the truth – and justice – after so many years of secrets, lies, and shame.
The children born in these horrible places did not all end up living in Ireland. They were trafficked in their hundreds to the USA, their birth records falsified, and to this day many do not even realise that they were adopted or born in Ireland.
When we talk about the 796 ‘Tuam Babies’ we should remember that they are not just skeletons buried in and around a septic tank in a North Galway Mother and Baby Home.
They are the flesh and blood of people like Peter Mulryan, a noble man in his 70s who wants to know what became of the little sister he never knew he had for most of his adult life.
Until he finds proof of her death, for all he knows Peter’s younger sibling could be living out her life somewhere in North America, totally oblivious to her roots or where she came from.
This need to know the truth seems to be of hugely important to the survivors and their children as they reach old age. Who would not want to know what happened to a sibling if he or she was forcibly removed from a tearful mother’s arms?
Even if they knew nothing about them for most of their lives.
Birth records were falsified, an order which ran a notorious Mother and Baby home is now making money from private health care, and religious orders are refusing to hand over records until they receive legal indemnity for crimes committed in the past.
Institutions circumvented the rules to send children out for adoption and priests were moved around from one parish to another when ordinary people raised concerns about clerical sex abuse. For many victims and their families, peace will only come when they hear full apologies and they receive redress for the crimes which destroyed so many lives.
Most of all, people just want to hear the truth.
It’s a theme which recurs again and again in ‘My Name is Bridget’, the new book by journalist Alison O’Reilly which examines the desperately sad case of a woman who had two sons taken from her in the Mother and Baby Home.
Bridget went on to live in Dublin, marry a good man, and have a daughter who never knew about the two older siblings who were seized from her mother in Tuam. It was only after Bridget died that Anna discovered she had two missing brothers, who may or may not be buried in that infamous septic tank in Co Galway.
Right now, Anna, Peter, and other survivors of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home are waiting on tenterhooks to see if Galway County Council are prepared to undertake a full excavation and examination of the Tuam site.
They will be shocked and dismayed if the authorities try in any way to cover up what happened in Tuam after all the pain they endured.
Decades may have passed, but they are still entitled to find out what happened to close family members – were they buried in an unmarked grave or were they trafficked to America?
in a letter to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, Anna wrote:
“This is a national scandal, not a popularity contest for who wants the tidiest cover-up. This can’t be the same as in the 1970s. How dare you,”
Anna sent copies of the letter to every member of Galway County Council to make it clear that she and other family members would not accept any kind of ‘cover up’ at the site.
Alison’s book is a very topical addition to the national debate. It shows how important identity is to the adopted and the truth is to survivors of institutions and their families.
In a powerful chapter at the end of her book, entitled Snapshots of Stolen Lives, Alison spoke to a number of survivors about their need to find the truth, justice, and peace.
“Everyone deserves to know who they are and it should not have taken this long and I should never have had to fight so hard,” said Breda Tuite, who was adopted through the St Patrick’s Guild Agency in Dublin in 1959.
It took Breda, from Dublin, years to track down her late mother from Co Kerry. For her, there was a kind of healing in visiting her grave and meeting her friends and family.
Sharon McGuigan was just 16-years old, an innocent child, and had been groomed by an older man when she became pregnant in 1985. She was admitted to the Dunboyne Mother and Baby Home in County Meath and gave birth to a daughter in February 1986.
The daughter was taken from her and adopted. Sharon had no say in the matter. Her daughter is still not ready to meet her but Sharon hopes to build a relationship with her some day.
“We should not have been made to feel so shamed and to be cast aside,” Sharon told Alison O’Reilly. “I just want to tell my story and not to be mistreated because of something that wasn’t my fault. I want an acknowledgement of what happened to women like me.”
Anna Corrigan has described the Tuam grave as a jigsaw which needs to be put back together. The survivors and their families point out that there were many institutions like Tuam all over Ireland and an awful lot of healing still has to take place for those who had no voice for far too long.
They believe that religious orders were engaged in criminal behaviour during the darkest days of 20th century Ireland and it is time the Catholic Church faces up to issues such as the shaming of pregnant women, child abductions, and the trafficking of Irish babies to the USA.
They believe that the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland will be a pivotal moment for the Catholic Church on the island.
If he listens to the people who had their identities stolen or who were separated from their families, a huge amount of healing can occur in August.
Otherwise, Pope Francis can expect very vocal – and hugely embarrassing – protests from victims who are not prepared to be silenced any more.
Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland.