This week's harrowing report into life at the mother and baby homes over the past 70 years makes for grim reading. It begs the question that if everyone is responsible then who is ultimately responsible for the abuse and forced adoptions that blighted some of our religious institutions?
Belinda 'Belle' Morgan was sent to a Mother and Baby home in 1975 when she got pregnant aged just 18. She said there were very few options for young unmarried mothers at the time.
“I told my dad in the car that I might be pregnant. He asked me what I was going to do about it? What he really meant was where are you going to go? I was from Finglas and my GP was also the doctor for the local Navan Road Mother and Baby home. He said please tell me you are not going to kill your child? He said if I didn’t get an abortion there was a place where I’d be looked after.
I thought it would be like something you’d read about in a novel, like a boarding school. But I trusted that I’d be looked after. My father made me leave before I was showing too much – if the neighbours saw me I was convinced the heavens would open and we’d all be struck dead, that’s how much of a stigma being pregnant outside of marriage was at the time.
The first night was a horror story
I hear youngers girls now saying they’d never let that happen to them, but back then everything was based around fear. Your local parish priest ruled the roost.
I packed my suitcase with my stuffed animals and my momentos like I was going on holiday and my father drove me to the Navan road. I remember this huge door opening and we walked into the hall and the nuns were smiling and saying everything was going to be great. The door shut and reality set it.
The first night was a horror story. It is hard to describe what it was like unless you went through something similar.
I was brought to a dorm with wooden and glass cubicles. All that would fit was a bed and a tiny locker. When I went to pick up my suitcase the nun said no, just take two items from that, we won’t want your clutter. My stuffed animals, which I loved, stayed in the suitcase the whole time I was there.
There were girls of every age – one was 14. It wasn’t about age, it was about the stigma. It was about how you were perceived if you ‘got yourself pregnant’ or ‘got yourself into trouble.’ That’s a very lonely sentence. And the nuns made you feel it at every turn.
We worked all day, sewing or cleaning or bringing lunches or feeding babies. I was given morning sickness medicine but it was later taken off the market because of the risk to the fetus.
I had a social worker who was kind but there was also a new young priest who was very free with his hands and if you made a fuss he throws words at you to make you feel worthless. I saw things I’ll never unsee but they are other people’s stories.
I remember thinking, god please let him live, even though I can’t have him
The option to keep your baby was impossible unless you had liberal parents or a boyfriend who sorted things out for you.
Nobody, unless it happened to them, will ever know what it is like to sit with your baby on your lap knowing you have to hand that child over. It scars you forever. You can’t put it into words. It changes you forever in more ways than you can imagine
I was scared during labour. It was very difficult, I walked the corridors for 27 hours and my baby was 9 lbs 8 oz. I’d love to get my records even just to see if I was given anything for the pain. But I’m not allowed to have access to my records.
For a few moments, after my son came out, he struggled to breathe. In those moments I remember thinking, god please let him live, even though I can’t have him. I could see him from where I lay and I remember thinking he’s my son and I’ll never be able to keep him. There are no words.
I was supposed to stay for six weeks but I started having a breakdown. The night before I left I packed my bags and planned to go and take him out of his cot and leave. But where would I have gone? I had nobody to help me.
I kept the photo of him in his christening robe under my pillow until I met him 34 years later.
I made friends with a nice girl who had arrived to have her own baby. They told me I could leave once he was christened. I arranged for her to feed my baby after I left. I made her his godmother and took a few photos. I kept the photo of him in his christening robe under my pillow until I met him 34 years later.
When I was home I begged my father to bring me back to get my baby. My throat was raw from crying. But he wouldn’t. And I had nowhere to go.
I finally found my son but they don’t make anything easy for you. He’d been adopted by an Irish family. Somehow his name was changed and my own name was removed from his birth cert – like my existence as his mother was erased. I don’t know legally how this happened but they did make you sign a lot of documents before you left.
After his birth, I started to self-destruct but over the years I got counseling and I’ve put all my demons to rest. It baffles me to this day the stuff the nuns thought they could get away with. I’m lucky compared to some of the things I’ve witnessed."
Belle shared her story with the Mams On The Mic Podcast series - a beautiful series of interviews with Leslie-Ann and Hazel about life as a mother in modern-day Ireland. They chart some of the powerful experiences women have lived through.
Podcaster Leslie-Ann's own mother Mags also shares her story about the societal pressures of having to give up her child in the 70s.
My parent's response was "tell her to wheel her pram elsewhere"
"I had a strict upbringing in a small town in Galway. I had to toe the line. It was a tough childhood. I moved away to Dublin to stay with my sister when I was 17. I fell pregnant when I was 19 and the relationship didn't work out. I felt I was being looked down on because I was unmarried. Closer to my due date my brother brought me home on the train to tell my parents. I stood outside while he broke the news to them.
He came out from the house and told me that their response was "tell her to wheel her pram elsewhere." We took the train home. Everything was about how the neighbours would perceive it. My father was a county councilor and he was concerned about his status in the community.
I went into labour on the floor of my sister's studio flat. My little boy was born in the Rotunda and I named him Stuart Adam. I fed him, changed him, and kissed and cuddled him. That week seemed to go on forever. People came in and introduced themselves - it was a confusing time but they seemed to be part of an agency.
They asked me what my plan was, how financially I'd manage, where I was going to live? They made it clear that adoption was my only option. They said he'd have a better life with someone. They said I had zilch.
Ultimately you want the best for your baby. Nowadays this wouldn't happen. There is more support from family, support groups, and the state these days. I spent a week there and then I was told to say my goodbyes. I was an emotional wreck. I'd bonded with him. The reality of the situation hasn't sunk in.
My son had gone to Temple Hill - a"home for unwanted babies" as it was called back then. I went back there a few weeks later and brought him presents and clothes and I got my last hug. I had to sign and then walk away. I got a photograph of him sitting in a buggy with a lovely cardigan on, and I have kept his photo by my bed ever since.
In the 1980s, I got married to my husband. He knew about the baby from the get-go. I went on to have two more children. I didn't try to find Stuart because I felt he didn't need me - that he was settled in his life. I was also afraid of rejection.
I didn't know what he would say to me. Would he be angry with me?
In 2013 I received a letter from the HSE saying Stuart was trying to trace me. My husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and he was in treatment.
My biggest regret in life was that adoption. My second regret was that my husband, who died soon after, never met Stuart who is now called David. The way I saw it, one man left my life and another came into it.
There were no words to say. I told him I was sorry
We corresponded through Tulsa at first. I received a photo of my adopted son with his own twin children. I've gained so much. He looked so much like my brother who helped me. I sent back a photo of us too and we set up a meeting.
I will never forget that morning. I didn't know what he would say to me. Would he be angry with me? I had to prepare for every eventuality. But I knew I had to do it for David, not just myself.
Then in he walked. We hugged each other. We said nothing - there were no words to say. I told him I was sorry. I told him I'd never stopped loving him."
Sincere thanks to Leslie-Ann and Hazel, Mags and Belinda for sharing their such personal stories with us through Mams On The Mic