At one point in history, there was an unwarranted stigma attached to pre-marital pregnancy, even more so in Ireland. As a result, mother and baby homes were established all throughout Ireland. Girls and women who had become pregnant while unwed were forced into these institutions, and while they were closed decades ago, the horrors that they were exposed to, still reverberate all across Ireland today.
Marianvale was an abandoned mother and baby home which opened in the 1950s and was run by the Good Shepherd Sisters. It was one of 12 located in Northern Ireland which had operated over the past century. There were even more located in the south of Ireland.
These institutions were a place of much despair and trauma. They were run by the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and the Salvation Army and they housed girls and women who had become pregnant outside of marriage. Some of the girls who were sent here were no more than children themselves while some were the victim of rape and incest. As one young woman stated: “I was in the early stages of pregnancy and I was sent there initially by the priest and social services. I was brought there by a social worker in a car. I didn’t know where I was going.”
Once inside the mother and baby home, the girls and women were stripped of their names and their identities. They were given new names and were forbidden from talking about their family or their lives on the outside world. Despite the fact these girls and women were pregnant, some of whom were heavily pregnant, they were ordered to work inside the mother and baby home. They were forced to clean the bathrooms, wash the floors and do the laundry. They were even ordered into demeaning and demoralising situations, such as Irish dancing to entertain the nuns.
The nuns at these mother and baby homes enforced a strict regime of praying and knitting and they created a culture of shame and secrecy; they repeatedly told the girls and women that they were “fallen women” who had to pay for their sins. The girls and women who were sent here faced arbitrary detention, forced manual labour, ill treatment and then the removal and forced adoption of their babies.
When the girls and women gave birth, they were not allowed to see their new born baby never mind hold it or feed it. The new born babies would be rushed out of the room and away from the sight of the mother. One woman who was forced into the mother and baby home when she was just 17-years-old stated: “My baby was taken away from me as soon as he was born. I never even got to hold him or even look at his face. He was adopted against my knowledge or agreement. The nuns and Government did that to me.”
It was estimated that around 10,500 girls and women in Northern Ireland were sent to these mother and baby homes. This specific mother and baby home had around 2,800 girls and women sent to it before it closed in the early 1980s. In 1990, it was purchased by Cuan Mhuire Ltd and became a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre. The organization had been founded by the Sisters of Mercy and they ran similar centres throughout Ireland.
Cuan Mhuire Ltd closed down in 2007 after they were unable to address health and fire safety concerns. During a review by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority, they also raised concerns about the centre’s policy for dealing with suicide attempts and self-harm. Ever since then, it’s been abandoned.
In 2017, former residents of this mother and baby home called for a public inquiry into the claims of abuse and forced adoptions. A number of campaigners, which included Patrick Corrigan from the Amnesty International, congregated outside a former laundry and mother and baby home located in Belfast to call for the inquiry to be granted. Up until this moment, much of what went on in the mother and baby homes in Northern Ireland had been swept under the rug; it was Norther Ireland’s worst-kept secret and inquiries had already been held in regards to the mother and baby homes located down south. In fact, people had been asking the Executive to conduct an inquiry into the mother and baby homes in Northern Ireland for years but each time, their requests were rebuffed.
The inquiry down south led to mass graves of babies being uncovered at mother and baby homes. There was much speculation that this could be the case in the north as well. While excavations were carried out, no such mass graves were found in Northern Ireland. However, it was uncovered that there was a shockingly high mortality rate for babies in children’s homes which was where many of the children born in the mother and baby homes were sent.
As news of the grim treatment inside the mother and baby’s home swept throughout Northern Ireland like wildfire, a statement from this abandoned mother and baby home would be issued. They stated: “Adoptions were managed through social services, registered adoption agencies and the courts. Should any persons have any matters of concern in this regard we ask that they immediately bring it to the attention on the NI authorities. We will deal directly with the appropriate authorities, as required, on all such matters.”
Early the following year, academics would compile accounts from those who were held at the mother and baby homes after their research was commissioned by Stormont following the public outcry. This research would examine the operation of mother and baby homes as well as laundries between 1922 and 1999. They called on girls and women who were forced into the mother and baby homes to come forward and relay their story. Many of these girls and women had never spoken about their ordeal. With so much abuse, their experiences had left an indelible stain on their lives and many struggled to cope in the aftermath.
In 2019, Amnesty International would brand the government probe into the allegations of abuse at the mother and baby homes as “shambolic.” They said that there had been a catalogue of failures which included no meetings for over a year, no meetings with the victims who had come forward and no actual research into the allegations. The probe was being handled by an Interdepartmental Working Group which was led jointly by The Executive Office and the Department of Health. They once again called on the Executive to establish a proper inquiry.
Shortly thereafter, a man would begin legal action against this mother and baby home. He filed a lawsuit claiming that he was forcibly adopted out and illegally taken across the border just months after he was born. He alleged that The Good Shepherd Sisters had forged his mother’s signature and that one of the nuns had told his mother that her baby was simply gone and she would never see him again. The mother and son were reunited 46 years later and the first thing his mother said was: “I never gave you away, you were taken from me. I woke up in the morning, the cot was empty and I was sent home.” This man was not the first person to claim that they had been trafficked across the border and illegally adopted by The Good Shepherd Sisters. It was estimated that this specific abandoned mother and baby home had sent 202 babies down south.
In early 2021, there would once again be another call for a Northern Ireland inquiry into the mother and baby homes as the Irish Government released a 3,000-page investigation into the mother and baby homes located down south. By this point, a number of women who were forced into the mother and baby homes and a number of people who had been born at them and then adopted against their mother’s will had come forward with their stories. Many questions still remained as to the fate of many of the babies who were born in the mother and baby homes. While some had undoubtedly been sent to children’s homes, the mortality rates in these facilities at the time were alarmingly high. Due to Ireland’s legal barriers on Freedom of Information, many mothers hit a brick wall when trying to access information about themselves or about their babies.
As of today, the Northern Ireland Executive has still refused an inquiry into the abuse inflicted at the mother and baby homes. Many women have come forward to expose what was done in the name of religion and what was done in a bid to keep the moral code. However, systemic change requires transitional justice and until an inquiry is held, that cannot be achieved in Northern Ireland.
In December 2021, Marianvale was demolished.
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