NORTHERN Ireland’s mother and baby homes closed decades ago, but their painful legacy continues to impact on birth mothers and their children today.
Eunan Duffy, Oonagh McAleer and Mechelle Dillon are members of the Birth Mothers and Their Children for Justice NI group. It is calling for a public inquiry into the former homes.
Oonagh McElhatton (now McAleer) was 17-years-old and pregnant when she was sent to live in Marianvale mother and baby home in Newry in 1979. This home, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters, opened in the 1950s and closed in the early 1980s.
Eunan and Mechelle’s birth mothers were also sent to the same home when they were pregnant.
Oonagh, from Co Tyrone, told Detail Data: “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. I really didn’t know what was going to happen to me.
“After a couple of hours at Marianvale I realised that I was being put away. I didn’t know how long it was going to be for and I thought I was never going to get out of there.”
Oonagh’s name was changed and she was told not to speak about her family.
"I worked from the day that I went into the home. We cleaned the bathrooms, washed the floors and did washing in big Belfast sinks. I remember cleaning the floors when I was heavily pregnant.
"We weren't allowed to say where we came from or to talk about who our families were. It was mental torture.
"I was so afraid. No one explained why things were happening or why we were being punished. It was cold and it was scary and I had nobody to talk to.
“Every day seemed like a year. Everything got stripped from you as punishment, because I got pregnant.”
Oonagh gave birth in Daisy Hill Hospital by caesarean section. It was three days before she was told her baby was a boy.
“I never seen him and I never held him and I never fed him. I never got to see his wee face when he was born. That’s one of the hardest things because I really didn’t know why they wouldn’t let me see him or let me feed him because I carried him for nine months and they stripped that away from me.
“I went into that home as Oonagh and I came out of it as a different person.
"The fear has stayed with me. I still just want to close myself away in life. My son was taken away from me and no one cares."
Oonagh made contact with her son eight years ago.
“He had his life and it was very hard to get back what I’ve lost and what he had lost as well. Thankfully he is healthy but I lost my baby and I lost all those years and nothing will ever replace that time.
“It has affected me so badly. It’s affected a lot of other women out there too that they have been in silence for so long for something they never did wrong.
“The nuns and the government did this to people and they have to take that into consideration and take a look at what they did years ago to girls like me. We were vulnerable and we were innocent and, to be quite honest with you, the men got away with it. They carried on with their lives.
“I am calling out there to any woman who has been affected in any way by any of the institutions, mother and baby homes, to not be afraid and to come forward.
"It took me a long time to build up the courage to do this but I think it’s the right thing because it’s the only way forward. It’s the only way that I’m going to get relief and justice for what happened.”
Eunan Duffy, from Portadown, only found out last year at the age of 47 that he was adopted when he requested his full birth certificate for his wedding.
He initially thought it was “a massive mistake” but soon realised “it was true and completely genuine”. After four months of his own intensive research and working with Adopt NI, Eunan found his birth mother living in England.
“She was absolutely over the moon and got extremely emotional and so did I,” he said. “She explained to me that when she got the letter she could hardly stand on her feet.
“Within a very short space of time we decided that I would go over with my wife to see her over in England. My half sister and her husband were there at the airport with her when we got there waiting on us. It was obviously very, very emotional.”
His birth mother remembers nothing about her time in Marianvale.
“Her time in the home mustn’t have been very good and we’ve had to explain that to her as well. She gets very upset at the fact that she can’t remember eight months of her life which is basically from the time she went into Marianvale in Newry in April of 1968 until the time she allegedly came out in December of 1968.
“She couldn’t tell me anything about the place, what it looked like; she couldn’t remember it. The only thing in the entire eight months she remembers was me being put on her chest for literally half a minute or so, looking at me, taking a note of what I looked like and then me being taken off her.”
Eunan backs the call for an inquiry into what happened in all mother and baby homes.
He said: “We appeal to women and children adoptees that know about how they came into the world and the lives that their mothers may have endured in these institutions to come forward privately and confidentially. Come to talk to us.”
Mechelle Dillon’s mum was 21-years-old and pregnant when she was sent to Marianvale in 1969.
“Mum was forced to go there because there was nowhere else to go,” she said.
“She didn’t know what was going on. She had to do her fair share of cleaning and doing laundry and she wasn’t allowed to speak to anybody or give any personal information out about who she was or where she came from.”
Mechelle was placed in foster care a few months after her birth. Her mother returned to her home village and then moved to England. But she came back for Mechelle when she was around eight or nine-months-old.
“She came back after a fight, arguing with social services ‘Don’t give my baby away because I’m coming back for her’. She did eventually come back for me," Mechelle said.
“Mum said I did nothing but cry whenever she got me back because I wouldn’t settle because I didn’t know her.
“To think what they did to all those women. It wasn’t their fault what happened to them.
“And the stigma of me as well walking around in the village. I do know that I’m looked upon as ‘There’s that child’.”
Mechelle, from Beragh in Co Tyrone, also wants an inquiry to take place.
“Mum has died since and it’s just unfortunate that she’s not here. This is why I am going to put this fight up for her. She didn’t deserve to go in there.”
We contacted the Good Shepherd Sisters to ask for a comment on the treatment of women and children at Marianvale.
We asked if the order had any regrets about what took place in their homes, if they would support an inquiry and if they were investigating any claims of forced or illegal adoptions of children. We also asked for a comment on the forensic examination currently taking place of land at the former site of the home.
A statement issued on behalf of the order said: "The Good Shepherd Sisters were the owners and occupiers of the Marianvale Mother and Baby Home, which opened in 1955 and closed in 1984. We wish to categorically state that there were no burials of babies, infants or adults in the grounds during this time.
"Adoptions from Marianvale were managed through Social Services, registered adoption agencies and the courts, in accordance with adoption legislation in Northern Ireland at that time. 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.
"Should persons who spent time in our care wish to contact us directly on any matter we will assist as best we can."
- Anyone affected by the issues raised in this article can contact Eunan from Birth Mothers and their Children for Justice NI on 07718 645924 or Oonagh on 07927 943248. Or email the group at [email protected].
- For information on Family Care Adoption Services click here.
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