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  • Writer's pictureSian Hourican

The Survivors of St. Mary’s and Marianvale

Investigation reveals the extent of the mistreatment in Newry mother and baby homes.

An investigation report into mother and baby homes in Northern Ireland was published last month after almost 4 years of research into the extent of the shameful (and hugely prevalent) practice of hiding away unwed mothers, due to the stigmatisation of ‘fallen women’ by religious institutions and society at large.

Women, often young girls, who fell pregnant outside of wedlock were brought to these homes to avoid bringing shame to their families, or perhaps simply had nowhere else to turn, but regardless, these places would prove to be rife with ill-treatment and would strip away any remaining shreds of dignity, autonomy and agency the girls arrived with. An estimated 10,500 women and children were sent to mother and baby homes in Northern Ireland, approximately 3,000 of which were subsequently sent to laundries; some girls were guilty only of “cavorting” or associating with British soldiers during the Troubles, and thus were punished by their families and communities by being sent away.

Appallingly, these girls were forced to work right up until they gave birth, with no remuneration for their efforts; early starts, forced manual labour, and a complete ban on discussing one’s background- these women were even stripped of their names, but the worst atrocity forced upon them was the removal of their babies. Women recall having their children removed against their will, and, upon acquiring adoption certificates years later, have discovered forged signatures on the papers. This would suggest that those responsible for the running of these homes engaged in the criminal act of forgery in order to cover up their original misdeeds.

In Newry, the Order of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd was responsible for the running of such homes, namely St. Mary’s and Marianvale, and have stated since the publication of the report that they simply held true to the ethos of their Order and refused to turn away girls in genuine need of their help. This misguided attempt to put an altruistic spin on the events of the past merely demonstrates a willingness to abdicate responsibility, blaming society for the fact that these institutions existed in the first instance. They even stated that a ‘significant minority’ were grateful to the Sisters for their assistance and support during their time in the home. They also ran two other St. Mary’s homes in Belfast and Derry, so their reach was extensive- it would appear nowhere was safe for these girls.

Many brave survivors have spoken out and detailed their experiences of St. Mary’s and Marianvale and, unsurprisingly, most of these women had their babies forcibly taken from their care. Marianvale was never a registered adoption agency, yet 13 children are recorded as having been adopted directly from the institution, and a further 202 were sent over the border, usually for adoption to American couples. In recent years, many have begun the search for the children stolen from them.

The girls in St. Mary’s and Marianvale, in addition to being forbidden from discussing their pasts, were prevented for interacting with each other at all, despite their close proximity. Many ran away, only to be returned by the police.

The existence of mother and baby homes illustrates the deep, systemic, institutionalised misogyny throughout the island of Ireland, misogyny which was further entrenched by the continued degradation of girls deemed too disgraceful to continue a normal life. The largest factor to consider is the role of religious institutions in defining appropriate and inappropriate behaviour- without their influence, society at large may never have become so vehemently opposed to casting aspersions on young girls and burdening them with the stigma of being the ‘fallen woman’.

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