From top: site of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co Galway; Ciaran Tierney
It can be very empowering when the marginalised, the denigrated, and the shamed overcome their fear and find their voice.
In a quiet Galway graveyard last year, I heard an amazing man tell a heartbreaking truth with unbelievable conviction and power in his voice.
Where, he wanted to know, was his little sister?
Why was nobody giving him any answers?
It brought tears to many an eye to hear him speak his truth. I stood there, stunned in admiration, listening a man who had been told he was worthless all his life.
Born into a horrible institution, fostered out to a family who beat and abused him; dealing with the terrible stigma of being branded as “illegitimate” as he set off on his journey through life.
And now, late in life, he found out that he had a little sister who may or may not have been buried in a septic tank.
I marveled at the conviction in the voice of a man who had found love and become a good father against all the odds, despite rather than because of a land which proclaimed to cherish all of its children equally while it branded some of them “bastards”, considered the cruellest label of all.
In the same graveyard this year, I heard an amazing woman find her voice.
She wanted to know why she had been locked up for years, even though she had committed no crime.
She wanted to know why she worked as a slave for nuns in a laundry, within a two minute walk of the beating heart of an Irish city.
Why was she imprisoned?
Why was she forgotten by the world outside?
Why? Why? Why?
And, in case we wanted to blame the nuns, she reminded us of a girl who managed to get a workman to sneak a letter out to her sister in affluent Salthill.
The man thought he was doing the poor girl a favour.
Instead, she was beaten black and blue, and denigrated for months for daring to make contact with the outside world.
Her sister let it be known that she never wanted to hear from her again.
And she was distraught for months afterwards, if not for the rest of her life. The trauma of being locked up in an institution compounded by being rejected for a second time in caring, ‘Catholic’ Ireland.
This country owes a massive apology to these two individuals; and to so many women, elderly now, who were locked in institutions for the terrible crime of bringing a child into the ‘Land of Saints and Scholars’.
Funny, how I never see the prominent ‘Vote No’ campaigners in my area attend the poignant annual ceremony of remembrance for the Magdalene Laundry women in Galway.
They express such concern for the sanctity of human life, but don’t seem so concerned with showing compassion for those who were victimised or had their lives ruined by the land of shame.
The voiceless are finding their voices now.
Their testimonials are so, so painful, and they remind us of an appalling past when our nation shamed its own women.
If you became pregnant outside marriage, you were locked up for a year before your baby was taken from you. Forever.
If your baby died, he or she may have been buried in a septic tank. Or – and you may never know because there are no ‘official’ records – the child was adopted, illegally, by a ‘good’ couple in the United States.
If, God forbid, you were unlucky enough to become pregnant for a second time, you were branded a “repeat offender”.
Even though you may have been raped, or totally innocent to the ways of the world after being incarcerated in a Mother and Baby Home.
This was the land which locked up women for a year and confiscated their babies for the ‘crime’ of having a baby outside marriage.
It was the land which locked them up for two years if they were unfortunate enough to become pregnant for a second time.
It was unimaginable how badly this country treated these women and their “illegitimate” children, treating them as second class citizens when they attended ‘normal’ schools outside the home or locking them up in harsh Industrial Schools, where abuse was rife and nobody heard their cries of despair.
Compassion was nowhere to be found.
This is the land that told us sex was sinful, that the most natural thing in the world was somehow shameful, and that a pregnant daughter or sister was the biggest shame a “respectable” Irish family could face.
This is the land that told so many of us that we should be ashamed of our bodies.
It ensured contraception was illegal right up until the 1980s, divorce only became legal in 1995, and a woman with a crisis pregnancy would have to travel to another country if she wanted health care.
No wonder so many of us buried ourselves in alcohol, suppressing the natural Irish joy for life, and that alcohol abuse led to risky behaviour and yet more crisis pregnancies.
During my own university days, I had no idea that a group of women I was friendly with were so brave.
They were the first generation of ordinary Irish women who dared to bring their children up as single mothers. Had they become pregnant just a decade before, they could have been seized from their own homes in the dead of night and locked up in Mother and Baby Homes.
Perhaps the women themselves, struggling to juggle motherhood, work, and college, did not even realise how ground-breaking they were in the early 1990s.
This is the land that told an Indian woman in distress that “This is a Catholic country” when she was denied the health care she was crying out for at my local hospital.
The death of Savita Halappanavar at University Hospital Galway led to a huge outpouring of grief in my city, a beautiful candlelight vigil in Eyre Square, and the start of a movement for change.
It is the land which told hundreds of women there was nothing it could do for them when they received a terrible diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.
They found there was a special section in Liverpool Women’s Hospital just for Irish women, who made the same lonely journey knowing that the child they desperately wanted had no chance of survival.
This is the land which banned books by the likes of John McGahern and Edna O’Brien, which seem so innocent now but were seen as “controversial” because they dared to explore issues of sexuality in a place gripped by guilt and shame.
This land had the power to destroy a writer’s livelihood, or force him or her into immigration, for daring to explore issues which seem so tame to the modern reader.
It’s a land where priests had the power to name and shame single mothers from the pulpits, or could collude with Gardai to drag them from their beds at dawn, never to be seen in their homes and villages again.
It’s a land which had the power to force the resignation of a Government Minister for daring to try to introduce a mother and child healthcare system. It would have greatly enhanced the ability of single mothers to bring up their own children, rather than being locked up in horrible institutions.
Dr Noel Browne, forced to resign in 1950, was way ahead of his time. His radical measure was seen as too much of a threat to the power structures in Irish society at the time.
It’s a land which has exported so many of its problems. As a much younger man, I met so many wonderful but troubled Irish people in Britain who had fled their native land, branded as “illegitimate”, beaten or abused, and many dealing with addiction issues brought about by so much pain.
In 2018, Ireland is still exporting its ‘problems’ in terms of so many women with crisis pregnancies from every one of the 26 counties who travel to the UK for terminations every day, week, and year.
Not many people I know want to see a widespread “culture” of abortion in this country.
Nobody I knows believes in the concept of “social abortion” which has been repeated as a mantra over the past few weeks.
But we do have compassion for women in crisis and we sure as hell want an end to this land of shame.
Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland.